Helping the left-behind children keep up


Prof. Wei Xiang-dong


China’s economic boom has led tens of millions of rural workers to head to the nation’s cities and industrial centres in search of better paid jobs. However, this migration has also created a generation of children ‘left-behind’ in the countryside to be looked after by grandparents, relatives and sometimes simply neighbours. The negative effects on these children, estimated to total 40 million in number, have extended beyond their sadness at being separated from their parents, and into their levels of educational attainment.


Professor Wei Xiang-dong, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Lingnan, believes this is because their intrinsic motivation to do well at school has been undermined by a lack of emotional support, as their parents aren’t there to praise them when they’ve done well and comfort them when they haven’t.  


Together with Professor Wong Ho Lun from Lingnan’s Department of Economics, Professor W Stanley Siebert from the University of Birmingham in the UK, and one of Professor Siebert’s PhD students, Xiang Zhou, Professor Wei devised an experiment to see if the provision of structured feedback to the students on a bi-weekly basis would help the left-behind children better realise their potential in class.


Funded by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council, the team’s research was conducted in 10 primary schools in Shaoyang County, a poor, rural area within Hunan Province. Almost 80 percent of the children in Shaoyang have one parent absent and are therefore officially categorised as ‘left behind’. However, the researchers chose to study, particularly closely, the 30 percent who had both parents consistently absent.


All the children, in every class in Grades 3 and 5, in each of the 10 schools, were included in the intervention. Every two weeks for a year, the teachers gave the students three sets of feedback: on their academic work; on their behaviour; and on any positive actions they took on their own initiative. 


Using WeChat, the teachers were able to keep the parents of a subset of the left-behind students up to date on their progress. So when these parents subsequently spoke on the phone to their children, they were better able to encourage them.


Comparing test results before and after their intervention, Professor Wei and his colleagues found that the left-behind children’s scores in both mathematics and languages had risen by 0.1 to 0.2 standard deviations at both grade levels. Furthermore, when the feedback results were shared with parents as well, the Grade 3 left-behind groups’ scores in mathematics improved by over 0.3 standard deviations. Given China’s exam-driven educational system, such small improvements can have a large effect on outcomes.


One Chinese language teacher told Professor Wei about an unhappy student whose parents had been away for three years, and whose marks had been among the lowest in the class. However, in the mid-term test after this intervention started, his score rose from the 25th to the 75th percentile. The boy’s parents were delighted and asked what he would like as a reward. He requested a new school jacket, and by the end of the semester he was number one in the class.


To know more about Professor WEI Xiang-dong's research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.