To enable deep listening about the local context, it is important to take a slower approach to assessment than is typically used and to adopt the attitude that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” After all, local people may have views and categories that do not fit outsiders’ understandings. Even their view of who “children” are may differ considerably from that of outsiders.

Orientation of the Learner

The learner should adopt a non-extractive, reciprocal orientation. If the learner comes to a community, acquires information from them, and then leaves with no follow-up, local people will likely feel frustrated and exploited. Such feelings undermine trust and are poor starting points for community-led action.

A better approach is one that establishes a sense of give and take. The community will give information, and in return the learner will use the information in ways that aim to benefit the community. Alternately, the community will provide relevant information about the situation of children, and in return the NGO could provide information about services and resources that community members could access and that are not seen as related to the facilitator.

This kind of reciprocal approach builds trust, keeps the focus on the community, and sets the stage for deep listening and learning about the community.

A process of deep listening and learning requires empathy, curiosity, humility, and a willingness to background our own preconceptions, thoughts, and analyses regarding the situation (see Tool FAC 3).

For example, if you are talking with local women who say, “Girls sleep with men who give them small items or money”, an empathic orientation is not to judge them but to want to learn more. You might do this by asking questions such as: “How old are the girls?”, “What kind of small items?”, “How is this practice viewed by the girls?”, “Is it usual or normal for most girls, or mainly for a sub-group of girls in the area?”, and “How do you feel about this practice?”

This open-minded, listen-and-learn orientation represents a sharp departure from the more typical “expert orientation” taken by people who conduct child protection assessments. Yet this approach enables us to understand the practice as it is seen through the eyes of local people.

The learning process also helps to build trust since it communicates quietly that local people are not to be judged but have views and practices that are worth learning about.

Of course, this approach does not tacitly condone the ill-treatment of girls. It is out of a commitment to child rights that we want to learn about girls sleeping with men who give them small things or money. Quite often, we learn that different people in a village or neighborhood hold divergent views about such practices and whether they are good for girls, families, and the community. These diverging views can help to animate very rich follow-on discussions that fuel thinking about how the community could change such a practice.

The key, however, is that decisions to condemn such practices must come from the community itself. As always in community-led approaches, the decisions about what are significant harms to children and which harms to address must come from the people.

Learners should also have a resilience orientation. When we take a deficits approach of asking only about the bad things that happen to children, it is easy for community members to feel that they are not being respected for all the good things they do for children. A deficits approach can also portray people as victims or as unable to solve their problems. Such portrayals can disempower local people. In addition, since effective action builds on existing strengths, it is essential to document those strengths during the learning phase.

Learners should therefore approach their task with a genuine interest in learning about both risk factors and protective factors.

Asking Open-ended, Elicitive, Questions

A good way to listen deeply to local people is to ask very open-ended questions that are likely to elicit the participant’s own understandings and views and to invite discussion.

For example, asking open-ended questions such as: “Are there harms to children that occur in this village/neighborhood?”, or “What worries or concerns you about the safety of children in this community?” create a large, open space that invites the speaker to identify harms to children. This is critical because it does not pre-judge what the important child protection issues are but focuses on the views of the listener.

Because this approach is designed to elicit or bring forth the speaker’s own views, it potentially puts the learner in a position to learn about harms to children that have previously not even been on their radar.

For example, after the war in Sierra Leone, the discussions about harms to children who had been recruited sometimes led people to say things such as: “That girl is not clean, and she cannot eat off the same plate as other people.” Follow-up, probing questions and girls’ narratives indicated that the speaker saw the formerly recruited girl as being spiritually polluted from being around dead people in the bush. The phrase “cannot eat off the same plate as other people” meant in the local idiom that that she could not interact freely with other people, as normal interactions could invoke bad spirits for community members or family members, causing sickness or death. This point had implications for the girl’s stigmatization and also for her reintegration and protection.

This process of asking open-ended questions followed by probing questions is important also for the ongoing learning process of facilitators (see ), who ideally would be part of the initial learning effort.

Flexible Yet Systematic Learning

The process described above of asking open-ended questions followed by probing questions requires considerable flexibility on the part of the learner. To a large extent, the learner follows the respondent’s lead, going where they want to go.

This is a significant shift from the more typical approach of asking a set series of questions, either in a questionnaire or in a structured interview or discussion.

The flexible approach, however, is far from aimless, and it is important to be clear about the questions that the learning effort seeks to answer. The box below, for example, shows some of the key questions that the initial ethnographic learning phase in Sierra Leone and Kenya had set out to answer. These questions may or may not be asked directly, yet they should be at the back of the learner’s mind as things they need to learn about. When the opportunity arises, the learner asks a question that fits the context and is timed to fit with what the respondent has been discussing. Via observation, the learner also obtains other useful information.

Key Questions, Ethnographic Phase

  1. How do local people understand:
    • Childhood and children’s development?
    • Girls’ and boys’ normal activities, roles, and responsibilities?
    • The main child protection risks or sources of harm to children?
    • The processes or mechanisms used by families or communities to support children who have been affected by various protection threats? And the outcomes of those mechanisms, and how satisfactory these outcomes are in the eyes of different stakeholders?
  2. How do child protection risks vary by gender and age?
  3. Whom do girls or boys turn to for help when a particular threat arises?
  4. Who are the natural helpers and what networks do they have?
  5. What are the indigenous, “traditional” mechanisms of protection?
  6. What child-focused committees exist in communities and/or Chiefdoms/districts? How are they perceived by local people? What are their roles, responsibilities, and functionalities?
  7. How are very sensitive/complex issues addressed?
  8. What are the linkages between community mechanisms and the national child protection system? How do communities perceive the government mechanisms that may exist? What gaps occur in these linkages?

Living in the Area

Trust is the foundation for effective learning, as local people will not speak or act freely if they do not trust the learner or they have concerns about being judged. One of the best ways to establish trust is for the learner to actually live in the community for a period of time.

After several weeks, the learner mixes and talks with many people, developing relationships and collective acceptance. As local people relax and see the learner being comfortable and respectful among the community, they in turn feel more relaxed and willing to speak openly and share more deeply about their culture and practices.

Living in the area, the learner observes when children go to school (and who does not go to school), when people go to their farms or to the market or to the mosque or church, when girls and women rise and what they do, when the men wake up and what they do, when and how people socialize, and so on.

This knowledge illuminates the rhythms and patterns of everyday life. It also enables us to time learning activities so that they are respectful, do not conflict with people’s ability to work and earn money, and include people (for example, children who work on the streets) who may not be present in their community during normal working hours.

Living in the area also enables a first-hand understanding of the context. If the learner lived in a house that was typical of the homes in the area, they would experience directly what it means not to have running water and what is required to obtain access to water, health care, and other necessities.

Diverse Methods

Learning through the use of diverse methods is essential since each method has its strengths and weaknesses. By combining methods that complement each other, it is possible to capitalize on their complementary strengths and mitigate against the drawbacks of any one particular method.

Particularly valuable are open-ended, participatory methods that help to unlock people’s agency and lay the foundation for subsequent community-led work. A collection of the participatory tools used in the Sierra Leone work is found in . Of these, two particular methods—narrative methods and participant observation—are discussed below.

Narrative methods recognize the importance of language and the fact that people are natural story tellers and makers of meaning. As people narrate their lives and experiences, they communicate rich information about their values, personal views and motivations, and understandings of their social world and their place within it. Narrative methods are highly useful in helping us to learn about local people’s perceptions, understandings, values, and struggles.

For example, if a learner were to ask a Kenyan woman, “Who is a child?”, she might answer, “The child is someone who cannot do things for herself and has to rely on other people such as parents to do most things.” This suggests that the speaker does not think of children in terms of age but in terms of being dependent on others.

Probing questions and flexible follow-up discussion could help to clarify what it means for people not to be dependent, whether dependent people are children even if they are 40 years old, and so on. This process can provide rich insight into the woman’s understanding of who is a child and the boundaries between childhood and adulthood.

More than most methods, narrative methods also help to illuminate local conceptual distinctions. For example, if a mother is asked what she thinks of child-beating, she might say, “This is the way children learn how to obey their parents and elders. If we do not discipline the child, he will not learn proper behavior.” However, she might add, “Child-beating is not the same as cruelty. Some parents really hurt their children, even burning their hand in the fire. This is cruelty, and we have laws against that.”

Such narratives indicate that the mother does not believe that all forms of physical punishment are good for the child, and if the beating or physical punishment is severe then it falls outside of everyday “child-beating” and into the category of “cruelty.”

Narrative methods help us to learn about these categories, which may differ from outsiders’ categories. Narrative methods may also illuminate areas of struggle or uncertainty. For example, a mother may say initially that child-beating is necessary but then amend this by saying, “I’m not sure that beating is really good for children. Some parents are asking, ‘Is there a better way of disciplining our children?’”

Such reflections offer a window on the people’s subjective struggles and areas of emerging change. If many people in an area ask such questions, it might indicate that the time is ripe for work on social norms change.

Narrative methods may also be used to learn about which harms to children local people see as most important. For example, the ethnographic tools used in Sierra Leone and Kenya include group discussions, in which local people identify various things that they see as harms to children and then rank them according to which ones they see as being most important or significant. This process paves the way for the post-learning work, in which the community as a whole decides which harm or harms to children it wants to address.

Diverse Methods

In using narrative methods, a key priority is to capture what people say verbatim. As discussed above, recording terms such as “heavy work” or “eating off the plate with others” is critical for capturing what people have actually said and understanding their views.

Not helpful is the tendency for interviewers to insert or inject their own terms by naming “heavy work” as “child labor.” The meaning of “child labor”, which is an internationalized term, may be very different from what the respondent had actually meant.

Whenever it is possible and appropriate, the learning team should work to capture key terms in the exact form used by the speaker. This often entails the use of digital recorders, with careful attention given to adhering to principles of informed consent and confidentiality. If the use of recorders is ethically inappropriate, as can occur, for example, in a conflict setting, it can be valuable to instead train the learners how to take notes in shorthand or how to work with a colleague who can focus on note-taking, with assurances given that no names or personal identifiers will appear in the written records.


Of course, narrative methods have significant limitations. If we wanted to know how much violence against children actually occurs, narrative methods might not yield the most accurate information. Parents may underestimate how often or how severely they beat their children, since factual information about that could threaten their image of being good parents who care for their children and avoid cruelty.

Because there is often a gap between what people say and what they do, it is useful to use participant observation to complement narrative methods.

As the name suggests, participant observation is a method in which the learner makes observations as they participate with local people in their daily activities. These might include, for example: farming, washing clothing, going to school, going to the mosque, eating meals with family, doing chores, or children playing with other children.

In these contexts, you might actually observe a teacher beating a child, other children bullying a child, a girl and boy helping their parents, teenage girls talking with each other in a supportive manner, and so on.

Such observations depict everyday life with a directness and a richness that is sometimes not apparent in narratives. The combination of participant observation and narrative methods may give a more accurate picture than would be attained by either method alone. For example, narratives might give the impression that child beating is not such a bad or stressful thing, yet direct observation of parents disciplining their children may paint a very different picture.

To ensure the quality of the data, it is vital to have an experienced learner/researcher act as a mentor who checks the data collection process and the data quality. By making regular field visits, even unannounced visits, the mentor can observe how the learner interacts with people and adheres (or does not adhere) to the learning principles. The mentor should offer observations and supportive advice that helps the learner improve their skills and do a better job.

The mentor should also check on a daily basis some of the written records of interviews or group discussions, reviewing them against portions of the digital recordings for accuracy and giving advice as needed to the learner. Without such a checking process, the intense demands of learning and field realities can tire learners, leading to data losses and decrements in the data quality.

A key part of the learning phase is to contrast different points of view according to gender, age, socioeconomic status, religion, and other related factors. This approach not only avoids homogenized portrayals of community views, but also illuminates how our positioning in the community influences our understanding and views.

If done well, this type of analysis can clarify how, for example, the lived experiences of girls differ from those of boys, and the gendered patterns of risks and protective factors. This information helps to illuminate power dynamics and shows that it is too general to speak of “harms to children.” Such information is an important part of the foundation for children’s full participation and subsequent inclusive community action.

A useful strategy in the learning process is to engage children and other community members in the learning, making the process one of co-learning. For example, we can train teenagers to learn about harms to children through means such as photography, drawing, group discussions, use of electronic media, and so on.[1]

The engagement of children in guiding the learning process provides rich information about children’s lived experiences and helps to illuminate issues that may be more salient to children than to adults. Moreover, a child participatory approach draws on children’s creativity and sets the stage for high levels of child participation throughout the community-led process.

[1] A full discussion of these methods is beyond the scope of this Guide. For useful resources, see International Institute for Child Rights and Development (2012). Child and youth-centered accountability: A guide for involving young people in monitoring and evaluating child protection systems. Victoria, BC: Author; Skovdal, M., & Cornish, F. (2015). Qualitative research for development. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing.