How to engage (young) participants in your study
It takes more than a good set of measures and research design to collect high quality data in a longitudinal study. Particularly when assessing children and adolescents you run into unique challenges that do not apply to adults. For example, not all measures that are designed for adults work well with children: tasks can be too long, too difficult, or simply too boring! Therefore, we had to adapt many tasks to make them suitable for children. Furthermore, keeping children engaged and focused throughout the data collection session is of great importance for the data quality. We also realized it is particularly important to invest in participant relations for a longitudinal study, to increase the chance of participants returning year after year. The investments we made paid off in the long run: we were able to retain 65% of our participants across 6 years of data collection [link to Achterberg and vd Meulen]. In this blog we share several of our tips and tricks for participant engagement.
Trainee buddy system
It takes a village to raise a child, but also to collect data on almost 1000 children and their families. Therefore we are incredibly thankful to all our staff and students that have invested their time and energy in data collection (see all of our Alumni here). Working with such a large group of people comes with its own challenges: how do you ensure all research leaders instruct the participants in the exact same way? Our approach was to use standardized protocols that were used during various phases of the study. These protocols were extensive and detailed, to make sure data collection was highly standardized. We also wanted to provide a solid basis in research for our interns and students: they brought their professional attitudes to our project, and we provided extensive training to increase their data collection and processing skills. For example, new researchers were teamed up with more experienced researchers so they could tag along for a couple of data collection visits and get a grip on all the ins and outs of the projects. Only when they felt comfortable about taking on the role of researcher in our data collection, they started collecting data as an independent researcher. Throughout the data collection we regularly organized intervision meetings to discuss pitfalls and problems, and to come up with solutions that made the work easier and more enjoyable for all parties involved.
Contact by telephone
It may sound old-fashioned but we contacted each of the families by phone. We learned this worked better than getting a hold on them by email. We have extensive phone protocols to ensure we didn’t forget to mention or ask anything. You can check them out on this website. Since there are so many families and participants involved, we have developed a monitoring system in Microsoft Access, to keep track of each contact (attempt).
Motivate participants at the visit
Not only is our research team very enthusiastic about research, they also like to work with participants. And they sure know how to keep our young participants engaged during the assessments. Even when the assessments had to be moved to online versions during the pandemic, they were able to keep them interested. The children received small presents after each assessment, and we changed these presents each year to be age appropriate. These included for example a set of crayons for our pre-schooler aged participants, and powerbank for our teenage participants. . In addition, to prepare them for MRI scanner sessions, we used an extensive protocol to have them get familiar with the scanner. For a start we sent them information beforehand, so parents can inform children of the procedure. Before the actual scanning session took place we provided a mock scanning session, where we took our time to explain everything and have them experience how a session is like. Read our protocols on the mock scanning session here.
Next to the visits we also have a couple of methods to keep in touch with our participants throughout the year. We had birthday cards sent to all twins on their birthday (made possible by keeping track in our Access database). Additionally we sent out Christmas cards to all families in December. We also aimed to publish annual newsletters for the participants, with fun facts about the study, updates on its progression, and introductions to the researchers involved in the project. For the children we always included a coloring page and some kind of puzzle (Sudoku, crossword puzzle).
We found this combination of a personal approach and instructions tailored towards specific age groups to be very successful in gaining and maintaining our participants’ motivation to participate. Now we are curious to hear what you did to keep participants engaged in your study? Please share your experiences on our discussion forum.