Empowering China’s Left Behind Children With Love

Parents Collaborating

Cecily Liu, a One Young World Ambassador and the managing director of Visionary Education,

shares insights and best practices from China’s leading rural principals and their work with

'left behind children'.

2020 is a significant year for China. It marks a historical milestone as China fully eliminates extreme poverty throughout the country. 

Accompanying China’s economic transformation is a significant leap in education access. However, while working closely with some of China’s leading rural principals this year, I’ve realised that behind the poverty alleviation numbers, significant challenges still remain. 

One such challenge is addressing the emotional needs of “left-behind children” in rural schools, which occupies a central place in the hearts and minds of the many rural principals that Visionary Education has provided leadership training for. 

This year, Visionary Education has brought together over 50 leading Chinese rural principals to write a book, sharing their front line experiences and valuable insights in order to inspire more rural education workers. 

Helping left-behind children to find confidence, love and realise their potential is a theme that runs throughout most of their contributed articles.The co-authored book, Levelling Mountain-high Gaps: Lessons from China’s Leading Rural Educators, was published in China this October with great acclaim. Me and other volunteers at Visionary Education have been extremely touched by the beautiful stories relating to left-behind children in the book, and I feel it would be meaningful to share some of the insights here. 

The concept of left-behind children is quite specific to the Chinese context. As a result of the country’s 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 their children grow up without receiving adequate parental affection, support and supervision. 

There are 70 million left-behind children in China. They are emotionally vulnerable and, consequently, often suffer from a lack of confidence and aspirations, and some may even develop unhealthy habits or commit juvenile crimes. 

In Levelling Mountain-high Gaps, rural principals have identified several effective practices to address left-behind 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.

Some schools that are conscious of children’s needs for parental guidance and affection are championing the concept of “school-parent collaboration” by inviting parents to participate in campus activities. 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 children’s 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 also found to be effective in strengthening the emotional bonds between parents and children. 

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 practices 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.” 

I feel that such valuable leadership, insights and best practices from China’s leading rural principals are worth sharing with a global audience and 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 really taking concrete steps to make progress towards this shared vision.   

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Published on 09/11/2020