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Peer interviewers: Recruiting parents to interview parents about childhood weight

Dr Fiona Gillison from the Department for Health received funding to train parents to conduct research interviews with other parents about their child's weight.

Dr Fiona Gillison (Senior Lecturer, Department for Health) received £1,900 to recruit and train parents to conduct research interviews with other parents about childhood weight. She also developed an associated training pack for other researchers looking to engage publics as researchers.

Project overview

Childhood obesity is a significant issue for public health, increasing children’s risks of current and future ill health, poor wellbeing and social disadvantage. National monitoring data shows that while most children who are obese at age 5 are also obese at age 11, a minority (around 12%) show a significant decrease in excess weight, jumping from the classification of obese at age 5, to a healthy weight by age 11. As few parents engage with health professionals in managing childhood obesity, how these improvements are brought about is largely unknown.

Many parents of overweight and obese children find receiving feedback that their child is overweight upsetting; they feel judged by health professionals, are concerned about stigmatising their child, and feel their own priorities for their child’s health (for example, prioritising psychological wellbeing) is not always acknowledged by public health teams.

Fiona has been working with local public health teams to research different ways as to how such parents might be engaged with, informed and supported over their children’s weight. Fiona used the grant to train up other parents as peer researchers, conducting interviews with other parents of overweight children, in an effort to access more of this hard-to-reach population about this sensitive topic. Fiona hoped that parents would feel more comfortable talking to other parents rather than to unknown researchers.

Working with Geraldine Cooney, formerly the Public Involvement Research Coordinator at Bath Research Development (BRD) and Angie Davies, a public member from BRD’s Participate Network, Fiona recruited and trained four peer researchers to conduct interviews within their communities.

Parents becoming researchers

Parent interviewers were recruited through internet adverts, flyers to parents known by the local public health teams, mail outs through BRD’s Participate Network and adverts at the local Volunteers’ Centre.

The peer researchers attended four workshops which covered different topics:

  • introduction to the research area, the aims and objectives of the project and how to conduct research into sensitive topics
  • focus on understanding the research process, including ethics and quality, and an introduction to conducting interviews
  • finalising of the research protocol and conclusion of interview training
  • post-interviews, a chance to review data analysis, and to shape dissemination plans and evaluation

The workshops were relaxed sessions with a positive atmosphere. Trainees were split into pairs for exercises which helped them get to know one another. Although none of them had previous experience and were a little nervous at the start, they were all willing to engage with the exercises and felt confident and ready to conduct interviews by the end.

The peer researchers have all completed at least one interview with parents of a child who has lost a significant amount of excess weight. The interviews have explored parents’ views on the factors within their families and the wider environment that may have influenced this change. Recruitment of interviewees was mostly through school nurses and contacts through community organisations. This recruitment proved challenging - probably due to the sensitivity of the research topic.

In the final workshop, the peer researchers were all involved in analysing the data from the interviews, drawing main and compiling the most important points.

Angie Davis from Participate Network said:

'I felt truly involved and valued in this project. I engaged and collaborated with others who share my interest in psychology, research, ethics and the complexities of obesity.'

Moving forward

The peer researchers reported that the training course improved their communication skills and generally made them feel more confident. They also found it interesting to learn about how and why research is conducted. They appreciated the transferable skills and the knowledge that they gained about the area of childhood weight.

Building on the success of this project, Fiona received University of Bath Impact Funding which she used to run a participatory workshop with the interviewers, representatives from many disciplines within local health teams and healthcare provider groups from four local authorities.

This led to the production of postcards providing health messages in the form of narrative stories that can be shared with parents, containing information about childhood obesity including quotes, ideas and experiences from the peer interviewing process. The postcards are now being piloted to explore if they can help to increase the acceptability of messages about childhood overweight in two local authorities. Fiona also plans to use the results from this project to apply for a Medical Research Council grant.

From this project, Fiona gained insight into the thoughts and experiences of a typically hard-to-engage population. She also made and strengthened her connections with other relevant partners such as Swindon Council, Slimming World and Alive ‘N’ Kicking which will be helpful for future research.

The peer researcher team are available and motivated and willing to collaborate with other researchers and to participate in other research projects.

Dr Fiona Gillison said:

'Public Engagement Unit seed funding provided an opportunity to conduct research that would not have otherwise take place.'

Contact us

If you want to discuss how you might engage publics in or with your research, the Public Engagement Unit can help.