Children and young people

Research with children and young people

How children's choices influence their wellbeing and how research can help.

Edited by Leah Murphy

Traditionally, research on issues affecting children and young people has tended to focus more on younger children, (the under-fives and school age children) or vulnerable children (orphans, ‘street children’ or child labourers). Similarly, many research and policy narratives have focused on the problems that children face, without always recognising how their choices - their agency - and their creativity can help in making the best of challenging circumstances. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a chance to reflect children and young people’s concerns and to develop policy agendas that acknowledge youth-led mobilisation  around the issues that concern them. Increased policy attention is driving demand for research evidence particularly on issues affecting older adolescents and young people, and that can support their transition to adulthood.

This guide draws on a recent synthesis of research outputs focusing on children and young people from the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation. It highlights research that directly engaged young people, through peer research and participatory practice for example, or looked at the factors that enable (or indeed inhibit) their ability to influence what happens in their lives

Continue reading: Livelihoods and aspirations

Meet the author

Tracy Zussman 

Get the content

Eldis content is published under a under a Creative Commons Attribution Unported (CC-BY) licence. You can embed this guide in your own website.

Embed this guide

Livelihoods and aspirations

The impact of HIV/AIDS on the livelihood security and prospects of children and young people cuts across wellbeing, health and education themes and policy priorities. Research on uncertainties about food security for AIDS-affected young people in Malawi and Lesotho, captured their aspirations, their livelihood opportunities, the obstacles they faced and their decision-making processes. The researchers make the case that, as children contribute to household livelihoods (in some cases as household heads) and make decisions about their own lives, they can and should be consulted in policy discussions, and recognised as part of decision-making processes, rather than just as passive beneficiaries.

So what were the issues that concerned them?  The researchers found that young people are very keen to learn vocational skills and to run small businesses; when asked about future plans and aspirations, they often mentioned enterprises related to Income Generating Activities (IGAs). Interestingly adult community members also talked about making vocational skills training and loans for businesses available to young people locally and both groups within communities repeatedly pushed these issues when asked to come up with policy recommendations for governments and NGOs.


New knowledge on children and young people: a synthesis of evidence
Overseas Development Institute, 2015
This report synthesises insights on children and young people (CYP) from research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research. It identifies the major contributions the scheme has made to knowledge on CYP in low- and middle-income countries and on effective policies for promoting CYP wellbeing.
Youth-led accountability for the SDGs
Commonwealth Secretariat, 2016
The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), have set out an ambitious agenda for global development for the next fifteen years, leading up to 2030. Empowering young people to hold governments and duty-bearers accountable is one of the most important means of implementation for an agenda that “leaves no one behind”.More than half the world is currently under the age of 30 but decision-making processes largely remain in the hands of older generations.
Income generating activities as components of sustainable rural livelihoods for young southern Africans - AIDS and other constraints
The Geographical Journal, 2011
The literature dedicated to exploring rural livelihoods in southern Africa has devoted comparatively little attention to non-agricultural livelihoods, as several authors have pointed out. This gap in knowledge about non-agricultural livelihoods is also reflected in the literature looking at the effects of AIDS on rural livelihoods in Southern Africa.
Averting ‘New Variant Famine’ in Southern Africa: building food-secure rural livelihoods with AIDS-affected young people
Department for International Development, UK, 2009
Southern Africa is experiencing the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates alongside recurrent food crises. This has prompted scholars to hypothesise a 'New Variant Famine' in which inability to access food is driven by the effects of AIDS. In line with this, it has been suggested that the impacts of AIDS on young people today is likely to diminish their prospects of food security in adult life.

Improving outcomes in food, nutrition and health choices

While many young people are active health-seekers – through medicine, treatment and advice - the extent, nature and outcomes of their health-seeking practices can vary considerably. Research from Ghana looks at gender and age, resources available, and health-seeking agency amongst CYP, and reports on their resourceful activities in obtaining treatment and taking responsibility for their own healthcare. This raises questions on how best to facilitate young people to seek healthcare safely and effectively. One way to do this, the research argues, is to extend appropriate youth-focused training to informal healthcare providers, who are often frequented by children and adolescents.

Child-led research in sub-Saharan Africa highlights the impact of mobility constraints and access to transport on education, freedom and social activities. The research shows that barriers such as travel costs, road safety and the long distances that CYP need to travel to reach clinics and medicines, can prevent children and young people from seeking healthcare in both urban and rural areas.

During a young person’s transition to adulthood, issues such as sexual and reproductive health care, unsafe abortion practices, and contraceptive availability are major factors. In Sierra Leone, village-based research highlights that teenage pregnancy has been identified as the child protection issue of central concern. Intervention models and implementation plans saw community members, and in particular adolescents, as the main drivers of schemes that included improved access to contraceptives, and sexual and reproductive health education and life skills - including the ability to say 'no' to unwanted sex and to negotiate and plan sexual activity.

Analysis of the social causes of under- and over-nutrition in children, and the emergence of the coexistence of under-nutrition and obesity within one household, is posing new research challenges that interweave parents’ educational levels and occupations, sibling numbers, energy intake, food preferences, and perceptions of body size. Research on urban environments in South Africa, Kenya and Chile illustrate the complex nature of child nutrition and demonstrates the need for an integrated multisector and multilevel approach to address these issues.

Continue reading: Access to education


Identifying and tackling the social determinants of child malnutrition in urban informal settlements and slums: a cross national review of the evidence for action
Institute of Education, University of London, 2011
Urbanisation can bring many benefits the rate of change but in many developing countries the rate of change has been so fast and so dramatic that many cities have been unable to cope.
Nutritional improvement for children in urban Chile and Kenya
Department for International Development, UK, 2014
Since 2010, the NICK study has sought to help two project countries, Chile and Kenya, reduce urban malnutrition in young children by facilitating intersectoral actions to change the social determinants. In urban Kenya chronic stunting is an endemic problem jeopardizing children’s physical and mental development.
A community-­driven approach to reducing teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone: midline evaluation brief
Save the Children Fund, 2014
Preliminary evidence from a 2009 global evidence review suggested that community-based child protection mechanisms are likely to be more effective and sustainable if they are linked with formal aspects of the child protection system. To test the value of nonformal-formal linkages, this action research uses a quasi-experimental design to test the effectiveness of a community owned and driven intervention that seeks to reduce teenage pregnancy.In each of Moyamba and Bombali Districts, there were two clusters of three communities in different but comparable chiefdoms.
Children, transport and mobility in sub-Saharan Africa: developing a child-centred evidence base to improve policy and change thinking across Africa
Department for International Development, UK, 2016
This project focused on the mobility constraints faced by children in accessing health, educational and other facilities in sub-Saharan Africa, lack of direct information on how these constraints impact on children's current and future livelihood opportunities, and lack of guidelines on how to tackle them.

Access to education

Schools can be an invaluable source of support for children providing stability, reducing levels of stigma and strengthening resilience among vulnerable children by offering them a healthy and supportive social environment. But access to education and attainment can be negatively affected by many factors, often interlinked, such as child poverty, the impact of HIV/AIDS, disability and teenage motherhood.

In South Africa, many young women, when interviewed by researchers, highlighted teen pregnancy as a barrier to education as well as a significant economic and social setback, and a source of shame. There are also those girls who have given up on school who are not motivated to consistently practice effective birth control. Policy initiatives are required to address the “problem” of teenage pregnancy in order to enable young women to avoid unwanted pregnancies and births, but which also encourage young women who have become mothers to continue to invest in their education and careers.

A study in Ghana and Tanzania, both countries that have introduced disability acts to address discrimination, looked at barriers and enabling factors in disabled students' access to education.  Most disabled students interviewed highlighted the transformative potential of education and aspired to be advocates for other disabled people. Participation in Higher Education was presented as having the potential to enhance the capacity of disabled people, but also creates knowledge for social change that challenges prejudice and negative attitudes towards disabled people.

Continue reading: Mobile technology


The role of schools in supporting HIV-affected children in sub-Saharan Africa: a systematic review
London School of Economics, 2012
HIV-affected children (themselves sick/with sick parents/orphaned) are particularly vulnerable to poor nutrition, mental and physical health, sexual abuse and poverty - which consequently tend to have a negative impact on their school enrolment and academic progress.Reviewing existing literature on schools and the health and well-being of vulnerable children, this literature review aims to address the following question:What interventions have been made to improve school environments to facilitate support for the health and well-being of vulnerable children in Zimbabwe and similar socio-econom
Factors shaping the HIV-competence of two primary schools in rural Zimbabwe
International Journal of Educational Development, 2015
School attendance often has positive impacts on the well-being of HIV-affected and HIV-vulnerable children in sub-Saharan Africa. In the context of the growing emphasis on the need for schools to go ‘beyond education’, international policy accords schools and teachers a central role in the care and protection of such children, particularly in relation to facilitating their school access and their health and well-being.
Teenage childbearing and educational attainment in South Africa
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 2012
Teenage childbearing and attainment at school in South Africa are investigated using nationally-representative data from the National Income Dynamics Study. The analysis focuses on the outcomes by 2010 of a panel of 673 childless young women aged 15–18 in 2008. Girls who had their first birth by 2010 had 4.4 times the odds of leaving school and 2.2 times the odds of failing to matriculate, controlling for other factors. Girls from the highest-income households were unlikely, and girls who were behind at school relatively likely, to give birth.
Agency and advocacy: disabled students in Higher Education in Ghana and Tanzania
Research in Comparative and International Education, 2011
Between 10% and 15% of the world’s population are thought to be disabled. The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an example of emerging global policy architecture for human rights for disabled people. Article 24 states that disabled people should receive the support required to facilitate their effective education. In research, links between higher education access, equalities and disability are being explored by scholars of the sociology of higher education.

Mobile technology

The increasing scale of cell phone usage among young people today is remarkable, not least in in sub-Saharan Africa, where school pupils in remote locations can call their peers to talk about homework problems, where phones facilitate relationships, and where smartphones allow access to Facebook and other social networking sites.

Cell phone use has wider societal implications for intergenerational dynamics, presenting a power shift in Africa from disproportionately elder-driven systems, towards a technological era where young people can play a much more proactive role in society.

Research in South Africa argues that there is plenty of potential for mobile technology to remove barriers that limit young people’s access to healthcare services. However, access to mobile technology is still uneven and subject to technological and financial constraints. But there are opportunities to strengthen links between mobile phone-based (m-health) initiatives, and youth-friendly clinics and school health services, to ensure that health-seeking behaviour is supported. This needs to be tempered with raising awareness of the unrealiabilty of some freely available Internet-based healthcare information and advertisements.

Continue reading: Back to introduction


Intergenerational relations and the power of the cell phone: perspectives on young people's phone usage in Sub-Saharan Africa
Geoforum, 2015
Cell phones present new forms of sociality and new possibilities of encounter for young people across the globe. Nowhere is this more evident than in sub-Saharan Africa where the scale of usage, even among the very poor, is remarkable. This paper reflects on the inter-generational encounters which are embedded in young people’s cell phone interactions, and consider the wider societal implications, not least the potential for associated shifts in the generational balance of power.
Mobile phones and education in Sub-Saharan Africa: from youth practice to public policy
Journal of International Development, 2015
Young people's use of mobile phones is expanding exponentially across Africa. Its transformative potential is exciting, but findings presented in this paper indicate how the downside of mobile phone use in African schools is becoming increasingly apparent.
How are young people in South Africa using mobile phones to bridge healthcare gaps?
University of Durham, 2015
Young people account for 30% of the population in South Africa, with just under 15 million young people aged 10 – 24 years. Adolescence is considered a time of both risk and opportunity: When rapid physical and psychological changes may lead to a rise in risk behaviour, substance abuse, sexual and reproductive health problems, violence and mental illness.2 Adolescent health and behaviour are also key determinants of the adult burden of disease.