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Learnings from conducting phone interviews with school children


Since the start of the pandemic, researchers have relied more on mobile phone surveys to collect data. This method has provided a learning opportunity; unlike traditional in-person surveys, physical contact with respondents is absent, creating the need for innovative ways to reach respondents, build trust and maintain engagement throughout the interview. An additional challenge is interviewing younger children. Building on previous research on phone-based learning assessments, we share ten lessons from conducting phone interviews with GiveDirectly beneficiaries and their children in peri-urban Malawi. Our research was looking at school attendance, child-parent engagement and how children spent their time. 

One caveat to keep in mind is that we were working with people who were actively receiving cash transfers from GiveDirectly and were informed of our research prior to the initial call, so their responses may not reflect those of the broader population. 

Lesson 1: Schedule the calls in advance and ensure that both children and parents are available for the call at the scheduled hour.

It can be hard to reach parents and children: parents may work in the fields or at their business, and children are in school on weekdays. Send follow-up messages the night before and the morning of the interview to remind the parent of the upcoming interview and that the interview will be conducted with a child. “This is a reminder that you have an interview scheduled for tomorrow at [the agreed upon time] with [Enumerator name]. We would appreciate it if you could make sure that you and [name of child] are available during this time for the interview.“ If you call and the parent is unavailable, or the parent is available, but the child is not available, attempt to reschedule the call. In our previous experimentation in India, we have found it typically took seven attempts to reach both children and parents.

Lesson 2: Build rapport with the parent.

Building rapport with parents helps them to trust the enumerator and feel more comfortable with allowing you to talk to their child. In order to build rapport and give parents full visibility into the information that is being collected, we replicated the child survey module with parents prior to the conversation with the child. 

Lesson 3: Provide them with enough information regarding the content of the conversation with their child and set expectations on what child responses may be like.

The questions will be multiple-choice, and [name of child] will be asked to answer whether something happens “always, sometimes, never” to a set of questions.

Lesson 4: Before asking the parent to pass the phone to a child, explain protocols clearly and outline the reasons why you are requesting specific procedures.

In our case, we thought we would be able to elicit more honest answers from children if they were far enough away from adults to speak about their experiences freely, but, not so far that they would feel unsafe. As you explain why you want to talk to child, include instructions detailing how you’d like honest responses from the child, which are more likely if the child is given space to speak freely. E.g. “…You may pass the phone to [name of child] and be in proximity of the conversation, but I would like [name of child] to answer independently, describing their experience.”

Lesson 5: Ensure that the child knows that the parent is supportive of the conversation and give specific instructions to parents on what to say to children.

To make sure the child feels comfortable, ask the parent to assure their children that they approve of the phone conversation and give them specific instructions on what to tell children as they hand the phone to their child E. g. “I just talked to {enumerator_name} who is trying to learn about how different parents/children like us spend time together. They have already talked to me, and now they would like to hear from you. Remember that if you don’t understand what they are asking, you can tell them so. I won’t listen to the call, but I’ll be nearby.”

Lesson 6: Build rapport with the child, pilot and contextualize.

Once you have the child on the phone, make sure to build rapport with them, asking them about their favorite food, game, or pastime when they are not in school. It is important to note here that these questions will need to be contextualised to the target audience. For example, we initially asked the children what their favorite color was, but so few of them could answer the question as many did not know the names of colors, so we ended up asking about their favorite dish instead.

Lesson 7: Ensure that the survey uses easy-to-understand language for the child group you are working with.

Keep the language as simple and straightforward as possible to help the children understand the questions. The easier it is for the child to understand, the more accurate a response they can give. In our project, for example, we faced a challenge with asking about “feelings” and “fears”  as the two are hard to differentiate. To address this, we merged the questions and simply asked about feelings in general.

Lesson 8: Ensure the parent is not listening to the interview with the child and have protocols on how to address that.

Before the phone is handed to the child, inform the parent at various points that you will need them to be at a distance and not listen in on the child’s interview. This can be done first when explaining to the parent why you want to talk to the child and secondly when instructing them what to do as they hand over the phone to the child. Once the child has the phone, you can also ask them if their parent has given them room and whether or not they feel comfortable to talk. In the event that you hear the parent providing answers in the background, you could say, “I hear somebody else’s voice in the background. I would like to hear what you think, not somebody else. Can you please find a space where you feel comfortable answering questions on your own? If not, I can talk to the parent/guardian again.”

Lesson 9: Train enumerators to interview children.

Interviewing children requires additional care to be taken and focused training on best practices. It is the enumerator’s responsibility to create a safe environment where the children feel cared for and safe. Enumerators can foster a safe environment by speaking in a soft voice, using encouraging language and showing support to the children to fully express themselves by respecting what they say, being positive about responses, refraining from judging or correcting them, and giving them enough time to give responses.  When a child appears to be confused, enumerators should be patient, giving the child time to think, and should paraphrase questions so that the child can fully understand before they answer. 

Lesson 10: Keep the interview short.

Since it’s hard to maintain the attention of children, the survey should be optimized to be as time efficient as possible. We suggest your survey be no more than 15 minutes.1

In scaling, our technique was validated, yielding a 90% response rate – a performance metric on par with our pilot study. The technique displayed versatility, with negligible deviation in responses across children and parents. The protocol proved resilient, requiring no modifications between the pilot and throughout the scale-up. Future research can focus on extending our technique to a broader, non-program-associated population, further testing its universal application.

Read our endline report here

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