Development of a consensus operational definition of child assent for research

BMC Medical Ethics
(Accessed 10 June 2017)

Research article
Development of a consensus operational definition of child assent for research
Alan R. Tait and Michael E. Geisser
Published on: 9 June 2017
There is currently no consensus from the relevant stakeholders regarding the operational and construct definitions of child assent for research. As such, the requirements for assent are often construed in different ways, institutionally disparate, and often conflated with those of parental consent. Development of a standardized operational definition of assent would thus be important to ensure that investigators, institutional review boards, and policy makers consider the assent process in the same way. To this end, we describe a Delphi study that provided consensus from a panel of expert stakeholders regarding the definitions of child assent for research.
Based on current guidelines, a preliminary definition of assent was generated and sent out for review to a Delphi panel including pediatric bioethicists and researchers, Institutional Review Board members, parents, and individuals with regulatory/legal expertise. For each subsequent review, the process of summarizing and revising responses was repeated until consensus was achieved. Panelists were also required to rank order elements of assent that they believed were most important in defining the underlying constructs of the assent process (e.g., capacity for assent, disclosure). In providing these rankings, panelists were asked to frame their responses in the contexts of younger (≤ 11 yrs) and adolescents/older children (12-17 yrs) in non-therapeutic and therapeutic trials. Summary rankings of the most important identified elements were then used to generate written construct definitions which were sent out for iterative reviews by the expert panel.
Consensus regarding the operational definition was reached by 14/18 (78%) of the panel members. Seventeen (94%) panelists agreed with the definitions of capacity for assent, elements of disclosure for younger children, and the requirements for meaningful assent, respectively. Fifteen (83%) members agreed with the elements of disclosure for adolescents/older children.
It is hoped that this study will positively inform and effect change in the way investigators, regulators, and IRBs operationalize the assent process, respect children’s developing autonomy, and in concert with parental permission, ensure the protection of children who participate in research.