Supporting China’s ‘left-behind’ children


  • Picture of Cecily Liu FRSA
    Cecily Liu FRSA
  • Education
  • Mental health

2020 is a significant year for China. It marks a historical milestone, as China aims to fully eliminate extreme poverty throughout the country. Accompanying China’s economic transformation is also a significant leap in education access. Cecily Liu, who has worked closely with some of China’s leading rural principals this year, highlights some of the significant challenges that remain.

There are 70 million left-behind children in China and the concept is quite specific to the Chinese context. As a result of the country’s past decades of reform, China has been experiencing the largest internal migration in human history, with hundreds of millions of migrants going from rural China to major cities to work each year. Their extended absence means that many of the children of migrant workers grow up without receiving adequate parental affection, support and supervision. These children are emotionally vulnerable and, consequently, often suffer from a lack of confidence and aspirations.

The challenge of addressing the emotional needs of these children in rural schools, is at the heart of what the Visionary Education initiative aims to deliver in relationship to school leadership training” Working since 2008, this year, Visionary Education brought together over 50 of the rural principals who have been trained over the last decade to write a book, sharing their frontline experiences and valuable insights with the aim of inspiring more rural education workers.

Helping these children to find confidence, love and realise their potential is a theme that runs throughout most of the articles. Our team has been pleasantly surprised to hear how rural principals have been able to bring inspirations and enlightenment to left-behind children through devoting their time, effort and emotional energy to individual children, and through exercising leadership to scalable up impact.  

The co-authored book, Levelling Mountain-high Gaps: Lessons from China’s Leading Rural Educators, was published in China this October and was well received. At Visionary Education we have been extremely touched by the beautiful stories.

Supporting left behind children

In Levelling Mountain-high Gaps, rural principals have identified several effective practices to address these children’s emotional needs, including campus activities, active collaboration with parents and improving boarding school environments. Many schools have invested significantly in emotional-engagement activities to help children strengthen their confidence and comprehensive wellbeing.

At some schools, teachers and students conduct regular ‘heart-to-heart’ conversations, which are critical opportunities for the children to open up and seek help from their teachers. Some schools also have secret-message letter boxes for students to communicate their concerns anonymously and receive individual replies from teachers.

Conscious of children’s needs for parental guidance and affection, some schools are championing school-parent collaboration by inviting parents to participate in campus activities (when the migrant-worker parents are in the area). Such collaborative campus activities include dedicated parent-children lunches in school canteens, which are taken as opportunities for staff to share best practices with parents for emotionally engaging with children.

Parents are also invited to visit the dorms and classrooms to further understand their children’s lifestyles on campus, so that they may create a similar living environment for their children during term breaks. For example, they may encourage children to actively participate in household chores and develop better lifestyle habits. These collaborative opportunities are found to be effective in strengthening the emotional bonds between parents and children.

Encouragingly, schools’ collective efforts to help migrant workers form closer emotional bonds with their children has coincided with a trend in recent years for migrant workers to choose jobs closer to home. They are increasingly understanding the importance of spending time with their children. Fast economic growth in their home provinces has also made the choice of working closer to home easier for them.

Rural boarding school teachers play a significant role in giving children emotional affection, ensuring that they are properly loved and cared for. Rural schools are increasingly gathering best practice and sharing these experiences more widely.

This type of strong emotional bond developed on campus is well noted by Yin Daifeng, a principal in Hunan province: “Our teachers look after every dimension of our children’s lifestyle. They even help younger children to shower, do laundry and other daily tasks. Whenever a child has a birthday, the whole class will sing the birthday song and share cakes. This means a lot, especially to left-behind children whose parents are far away, as these children can easily feel lonely.”

These insights from China’s leading rural principals can provide inspiration to other international educators. Achieving equal access to educational opportunities is a beautiful dream shared by educators globally, and rural educators in China are taking concrete steps to make progress towards this shared vision.   

Cecily Liu is managing director of Visionary Education, a charity seeking to improve the quality of rural education in China.

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