Journal Article Addresses Unique Mental Health Needs of China’s Migrant Children

May 10, 2019 @ 3:09 pm
By Communications Office

Children of China’s many internal migrants have a hard time adjusting. Two alumni and a current student have co-written a journal paper suggesting policy changes to help them, including a role for social workers in schools.

In February, the Journal of Asian Public Policy published a paper by a team of two School of Social Work alumni and one graduating student, titled “Identity crisis among rural-to-urban migrant children in China: a proposal for school and government interventions.” In it, Qianfeng Lin (MSW’18), Mengluo Ren (MSW’18), and Mengdi Yang (MSW’19) address the growing problem of rural Chinese children failing to adapt to city life after moving with migrant parent workers from the countryside.

As Qianfeng Lin explained it to us, their paper emerged from coursework undertaken as part of Professor Qin Gao’s Global Social Policy course. Professor Gao encouraged the students to dig into their personal experiences and to envision the kinds of sweeping social welfare measures China should be undertaking.

“My personal experience as a migrant child growing up in an urban community brought our attention to the well-being of my fellow migrant population in China,” Lin said.

Indeed, Lin’s family was part of what has been described as one of the largest labor flows in world history. Enormous numbers of China’s rural workers, driven by a large urban–rural income gap, have moved to the cities in the past couple of decades, contributing to China’s spectacular economic growth. And the migrants who have come in recent years, the so-called new generation, have tended to bring their spouses and children with them rather than coming solo and sending money back to the family in the village.

According to the paper authors, Chinese children from the countryside who land in the city face unique obstacles. Besides the usual adjustments involved in moving to a new home, migrant children experience a kind of coercive assimilation into urban culture that requires them to erase their local customs and culture. They often trade their regional dialects for less familiar Mandarin and suffer the weight of a large social hierarchy bearing down upon them in their new position at its base.

As the writers see it, many of these children develop an inferiority complex along with an antipathy toward their new home and its inhabitants:

“The relationship between urban and rural is often presumptuously interpreted by migrant children as the mean urban rich and innocent rural poor.”

While aware of the issues that migrant children face in the acculturation process, the Chinese government has placed the onus for assisting them on local city schools. But this policy, however well intended, falls far short of what is needed, the writers note. In fact, a number of migrant children have ended up in migrant-only schools—a separate, unequal, and often poorly regulated system. Meanwhile, those who attend public schools are viewed by locals as a source of overcrowding and are thereby subject to social reproach.

Somewhat surprisingly, the team reports that those in migrant schools tend to be less satisfied with their situation. They are less culturally well adapted and express more concerns with discrimination relative to migrants in mixed schools. Both options, though, limit acculturation, resulting in a crisis of identity for these children, with potentially lifelong social and economic consequences, the team says.

Lin explains it thus: “The environment, including family, school, and society at large, continually reminds migrant children about the different life trajectory laid ahead of them.”

The paper proposes a vision of proactive government intervention on both local and national levels, consisting of these three steps:

  1. Establish formal school social work departments in local schools or districts.
  2. Invest in social services programs offered by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that specialize in identity issues and related behavioral problems.
  3. Set up an empathy-based training program to help teachers better serve their rural students, with increased compensation for teachers who undergo certification.

Lin and his co-authors are aware that their platform of reforms is a big ask. The Chinese government has put forth a plan to have 1.5 million registered social workers throughout the country by 2020, but they will be serving a country of more than 1.4 billion. With its senior (60 and over) population continuing to grow relative to the overall population, one wonders whether the social work community will have the capacity to deal effectively with the special needs of migrant children in cities. Nevertheless, the paper authors urge the government to consider directing some of those social workers into the public school system. That way, schools would be better prepared to offer migrant children crisis intervention, conflict resolution, and counseling on a range of issues affecting them at school and at home, heading off long-term psychological and social problems.

“It is easier to build healthy children than repair broken adults,” the authors conclude.