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Engaging parents in research project: Do current ethical standards prevent participation of low socio-economic populations in child health promotion research?

Recent declines in survey response rates and the changing nature of school policy to mandate active consent procedures for all research activities affect the quality of research outcomes and the capacity to secure funding for the development of proposals with well powered research methodologies. This project aims to investigate ethically sound and practical methods to improve response rates for the collection of research data. This project comprises three phases: stakeholder engagement; scoping of evidence and participant consultation.

Parents of school-aged children were invited to participate in brief intercept interviews to answer the study objectives. The interviews took five minutes to complete and were conducted at the Perth Royal Show in September/October 2009. Approximately 200 parents were approached to participate in this study and 144 interviews were completed with parents of school-aged children. Adults who chose not to participate cited a lack of interest, were too busy or that they were not a parent of a child in the age group as reasons for declining to participate. In addition, eight stakeholders from non-Government schools were interviewed including a Deputy Principal, Head of Boarding, primary and high school teachers, a school officer and registrar.

Findings from this research demonstrate most parents intend to return their child’s consent form; however, actual response rates in previous studies have been very low. Parents and stakeholders were agreeable on some methods to improve response rates; however their opinions varied on others. Therefore a multipronged approach would be recommended to reach as many parents as possible.

Most notably, many parents and stakeholders thought sending consent forms through the mail (with support provided for school administration) was overall a good method to ensure parents received the information. Child delivery of forms was reasonably popular with parents; however, both parents and stakeholders agreed it was not ideal as forms get lost. Another accepted method involved consent forms being sent home with other school forms needing to be signed. This was acceptable by most parents and some stakeholders; however, other stakeholders didn’t think it would work well at their school. Email and online forms were suitable for some parents and stakeholders; however, not all parents have a computer (possibly those more disadvantaged) and this could hinder response rates. Mobile text message reminders were clearly seen by some stakeholders and parents as too personal and invasive. Lastly some stakeholders found phone calls helpful for contacting parents; however, more parents said they disliked this method than those who liked it. Parents and stakeholders both felt giving students small incentive items for returned consent forms was acceptable and would help to encourage students to return their forms. Finally, many parents and stakeholders thought it was very important to get the results of the research their child or school had been involved in and suggested a letter or newsletter items would be an appropriate way to communicate this.

Ensuring a high parent response rate is important for many reasons. Most importantly, it ensures a representative sample of students is available for child health research. Essentially, a variety of methods are needed to increase parental response rates, including mailing letters directly to parents’ home address, newsletter prompts and email reminders through school distribution lists. Moreover, schools need administration support to assist with the distribution of information through these channels.

Project duration


Funding body

Edith Cowan University Industry Collaboration Grant partnering with Healthway and the Department of Education and Training (Behaviour Standards and Wellbeing Directorate)

For further information about this project contact Laura Thomas at


Dr Lydia Hearn
Dr Laura Thomas
Healthway, Ms Joanne House
Professor Donna Cross
Ms Kim Gifkins


Dr Laura Thomas
Ms Sharon Bell

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