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  • 00:01

    [MUSIC PLAYING][Researching Nurseries & Parental InvolvementUsing Focus Groups & Interviews]

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    NICOLA SMITH: My name is Nicola Smith,and I'm an early years lecturer at University CollegeBirmingham.[Nicola Smith, PhD, Lecturer in Primary/Early Years Education,University College Birmingham] I'mgoing to talk today about my PhD research.I was working with parents, children, and practitioners,and I was particularly interestedin parental involvement in their children's nursery education.And today, I'm going to talk a little bit

  • 00:30

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: about how I manage to change from beinga practitioner to being a researcher,and also some of the challenges that I found when I was settingup interviews with teachers, and great work with parentsand children.[Transitioning from Practitioner to Researcher]When I started my PhD research, I

  • 00:52

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: was a nursery teacher in a school in Birmingham,and I was working with families from British Pakistaniand British Bengali origin.And I was concerned that, really, Iwasn't doing a very good job of working with these families,in particular in communicating with parentsand supporting parents to be involved in their children'seducation.So my research came very much from a point of view of I

  • 01:13

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: wanted to improve practice in termsof how nursery teachers work with the parentsof the children that they're involved with.So to begin with, I found it quitehard to make the change from being a practitionerto being a researcher.I think if you work with children in nursery,you're quite used to acting and responding quite quicklyto things.

  • 01:33

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: So if you see that a child's upset,you're used to stepping in and trying to comfort them and workout what's going on.And similarly, if you've got a child whois struggling with something that they're learning,you're thinking on your feet all the timewhen you're a nursery teacher.And you're used to kind of doing things straightaway.And I found that quite hard.When I started my research, my supervisor

  • 01:55

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: had to keep telling me, you're notready to start your field work yet.You can't start it yet because I kind ofwanted to get stuck in with doing interviews straightaway.So I had to learn to kind of take a step back.And I had to do lots of reading, lots of planning,lots of reflection before I could start my research.And I found that quite hard to start off with.I also found that I was having to make a big change in terms

  • 02:18

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: of the kind of language that I was readingand that I was using because I was usedto working with children who spoke Englishas an additional language.And they were three and four years old.So in my day-to-day job, I was usedto trying to think of how I could explainthings in the simplest way possible so that children wouldunderstand them in English, whichwasn't their first language.

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    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: So I was kind of going from that to then reading about researchand coming across words like epistemological,and positivists, and qualitative, and quantitative.And it's quite a change there.And I found that what I had to dowas kind of make myself a little glossary in a notebookso that I could write down what those words meantand come back to them.And I had to practice using them because I

  • 03:01

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: didn't feel comfortable with them to start off with.So that was quite a big change for me and somethingthat my supervisor supported me with a lot.And then when I started my research,I had to think really carefully about what kind of roleyou have to take when you're a researcher.

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    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: And one of the things that I had to learn to do, particularlywhen I was doing interviews, for example,was to listen rather than talk.Because you can't carry on a conversation in an interviewfor research because you might influence whatthe person is telling you.So you have to learn to plan your questions out carefullyand then sit back and listen.Now I find that quite hard, particularlybecause, with my PhD focus, obviously it's something

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    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: you're really interested in if you're researching it.So you want to have a conversation with someoneabout it.So I found something that helped mewith that was to have a research diary,so then I could kind of carry on those conversationsin my writing after I've had the interviews.And that really helped me to reflect on what I was doingand to have those conversations, not actually in the interview.

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    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: And that's an important thing to dobecause you have to reflect on the thingsthat people have told you.I think something that helped me to make the move from beinga practitioner to being a researcherwas that, if you're a teacher, you'reused to reflecting on your own practice.You were always having to think, why am doing this?Have I done this in the right way?And you have to do that all the way through your research,

  • 04:29

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: particularly in relation to ethics.And with my research, I had to be really careful because therewere already existing relationships between myselfas a teacher and the parents, and between myselfas a teacher and the children.So also, all the time I had to keep thinking, what impact isthis research going have on the familiesthat I'm working with, and on the teachers

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    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: that I was working with, too?So from an ethical point of view,it's really important for me to keepreflecting in an ongoing way--in the same way that I've been used to doing as a teacher.[Conducting Semi-Structured Interviews]In my research, always examining perceptionsof parental involvement, so I needed to talk to teachers.

  • 05:11

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: I started to do this using semi-structured interviews.Because my data was going to be mostly qualitative,I thought I needed to have something that was a bit morethan a questionnaire.I needed to be allowing teachers to talk and tell meabout their perceptions.But this is quite tricky because, if youwant to interview teachers, they're really, really busy.So it's quite tricky in terms of time.

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    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: And also it's quite tricky because it's a big thingto ask--asking teachers to talk to you about their practicewhen they know that you're also talkingto the parents of the children that they work with.So that could potentially be quitethreatening for the teachers I was working with.And what helped me here was I'd read upsome about Diane Reay's research in similar situations.

  • 05:56

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: And she wrote about how she spenttime getting to know the teachers and the familiesfirst to build up relationships of trust.So that's what I did with the teachers who I work with.So to start off with, I didn't do any of my actual research.I just went into the nurseries for one daya week over half term, and I just helped out in the nursery.

  • 06:17

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: I did things like putting up displays, cleaning outcupboards-- all those kind of jobsthat teachers maybe don't have time to do.And while I was doing that, I wasable to talk to the teachers, get to know them.I felt that we built up a relationship wherethey could trust me to be doing the right thingwith my research.And that was really important in terms of making surethat when we came to do the interviews,

  • 06:39

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: they felt able to share with me their actual perceptionsof parental involvement.Because I think in my research thereis a danger all the way through that, if I wasn't careful,people were only going to be telling me whatthey thought I wanted to hear.So that was something really importantfor me to address in terms of my research methods.[Conducting Focus Groups]

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    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: When I was thinking about my research methods,I decided that it wouldn't be a good ideato use interviews with the parents and the children.One of the things I was looking at in my researchwere power relationships that existbetween teachers and parents.So I had to think about that in terms of my methods,as well as thinking about that in terms of my data analysis.

  • 07:23

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: And when I thought about it, because a lot of the parentsalready knew me as a teacher in one of the schools,I knew that if I did a one-to-one interview,there was a risk that they might just tell methe things that would make them look like a good parent,if you like.Just tell me the things that they thought I, as a teacher,wanted to hear.And that's not what I was trying to achieve with my research.

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    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: Also, because the parents I was working with mostlyspoke English as an additional language,I was going to need to have a translator with meif I was doing interviews.So I thought that could be potentially even moreintimidating for parents because it would be like twoagainst one, if you like.So I decided that I had to find a different way of workingwith the parents if I wanted them to really sharetheir true opinions with me.

  • 08:05

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: So I looked at using focus groups because I thought,in that way, I as the researcher would be outnumberedby the number of parents who were there so it wouldmake it less intimidating.It also meant that we could again build upthose relationships over time.So that at the beginning-- because I did a pilot studyof my focus groups--

  • 08:26

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: at the beginning, I started with quite non-threatening thingsto talk about.We just talked about things like,what do your children do when they're at nursery,so that we could get to know each other first.And I also used some activities from some open universitymaterials that were for parent workshopsso that it wasn't all talking.It was focused on activities to help people to feel

  • 08:48

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: more comfortable about talking.One of the most useful things I did to get to know parents,as well as building up relationships over timeby being around in the nursery, is during that first half term.When I was in one of the nurseries,they were going on a school trip.So I went with them, and I took my daughter,who was younger than the children in the nurserybecause she was a toddler at the time.

  • 09:09

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: And that really helped.It was kind of like a sort of levelerbetween me and the parents.Because they had known me as a teacher, and nowthey were getting to know me a little bit as a parent.Of course, they were more experienced parents.They were able to give me their advice about what I shouldbe doing with my daughter.And that was a really good experiencefor getting to know the parents and for helping

  • 09:29

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: them to get to know me.I had to be really careful once I started the focusgroups because the thing is, if you've build up relationshipswith parents and you start asking them things,you have to bear in mind that they might surprise youwith some of the things they want to talk about.And some of the things that came up in the focus groupswere quite difficult to deal with.

  • 09:51

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: For example, there was one occasionwhen a parent said something in her home languageand then turned to the translatorand said, but don't tell Nicola that.I don't want you to translate that.That was quite an interesting ethical dilemma for mebecause I knew that that might be potentiallyquite an important thing that I needed to know for my research.But on the other hand, the parent had said it,

  • 10:12

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: and then decided that she didn't want itto be included in the research.And because the translator was there,she had the option to do that.So I had to think about that really carefully.And I had to avoid the temptation to ask someone elseto translate it for me on the recording,because I had to respect her decisionnot to include whatever she said.Another thing that came up on one or two occasions

  • 10:35

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: was that parents shared things thathappened with their children in the nursery that had been quiteupsetting at the time, and that they were still upset and quitecross about.And that was quite difficult because in asking parentsto share their experiences with you,you're potentially asking them to revisitthings that are difficult and quite painful for them.

  • 10:57

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: So I had to be quite sensitive in the way I handled that.And I had to make sure that, by the timewe finished that focus group session, that the parents werefeeling OK with having shared that,and that they were feeling that they weren'tgoing to go away from the focus groups still being upsetor cross.So that was something that I maybe

  • 11:18

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: didn't expect to start off with because it hadn't happenedin the pilot study, but that I hadto deal with as it came up in the research.[Advice for Other Researchers]So to finish off some of the advice I'doffer if you were going to conduct interviews or focusgroups is, first of all, to make sure

  • 11:39

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: that you record your interviews.[Advice] [Record your data carefully]You find if you try and write things down you justcan't write down everything that people say.So audio record them and make sure you back it up.[Back your data up] I did have an Instancewhen I lost one of my recordings and it was quite stressfuluntil I managed to retrieve it.So make sure you back up your recordingsas soon as you've done them.And also I think you have to be prepared to listen

  • 12:01

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: to your recordings over and over again,because you really need to get to know your data.[Listen to your recordings several times before analyzing]You almost need to know it off by heart before youcan start analyzing it.So my advice would be record your data carefully, back itup, and then listen to it over and over againbefore you start really jumping into some analysis.

  • 12:22

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: Because you need to know your data,and you need to have thought about it a lot before youstart your formal analysis.[Reflective Questions][1.How will I make sure my participants are comfortableenough to talk to me about their opinions and experiences?][2.How will I know if my research methods are enabling meto build a trustworthy picture of what is happeningin relation to my research focus?]

  • 12:42

    NICOLA SMITH [continued]: [3.How will I be able to demonstrate that I have carriedout my research in an ethical manner?][Further Reading Callan, S., & Reed, M. (2001).Work based research in early years.London, SAGE Publications.Roberts Holmes, G.]


Dr. Nicola Smith examines considerations around the use of interviews and focus groups in school and nursery settings. Additionally, Smith explores difficulties facing practitioners transitioning into a research role.

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Researching Nurseries & Parental Involvement Using Focus Groups & Interviews

Dr. Nicola Smith examines considerations around the use of interviews and focus groups in school and nursery settings. Additionally, Smith explores difficulties facing practitioners transitioning into a research role.

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