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Academic achievement and mental health of left-behind children in rural China: A causal study on parental migration

Lei Wang (International Business School, Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China)
Yaojia Zheng (Rural Education Action Program, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, USA)
Guirong Li (International Center for Action Research on Education, School of Education, Henan University, Kaifeng, China)
Yanyan Li (Rural Education Action Program, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, USA) (School of Education, Henan University, Kaifeng, China)
Zhenni Fang (Harfor Fund Management, Shanghai, China)
Cody Abbey (Rural Education Action Program, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, USA)
Scott Rozelle (Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies, Standord University, Stanford, California, USA)

China Agricultural Economic Review

ISSN: 1756-137X

Article publication date: 13 June 2019

Issue publication date: 18 October 2019




China’s rapid pace of urbanization has resulted in millions of rural residents migrating from rural areas to urban areas for better job opportunities. Due to economic pressures and the nature of China’s demographic policies, many of these migrants have been forced to leave their children with relatives – typically paternal grandparents – at home in the countryside. Thus, while income for most migrant families has risen, a major unintended consequence of this labor movement has been the emergence of a potentially vulnerable sub-population of left-behind children (LBCs). The purpose of this paper is to examine the impacts of parental migration on both the academic performance and mental health of LBCs.


Longitudinal data were drawn from three waves of a panel survey that followed the same students and their families – including their migration behavior (i.e. whether both parents, one parent, no parent migrated) – between 2015 and 2016. The survey covers more than 33,000 students in one province of central China. The authors apply a student fixed-effects model that controls for both observable and unobservable confounding variables to explicate the causal effects of parental migration on the academic and mental health outcomes for LBC. The authors also employ these methods to test whether these effects differ by the type of migration or by gender of the child.


The authors found no overall impact of parental migration on either academic performance or mental health of LBCs, regardless of the type of migration behavior. The authors did find, however, that when the authors examined heterogeneous effects by gender (which was possible due to the large sample size), parental migration resulted in significantly higher anxiety levels for left-behind girls. The results suggest that parental migration affects left-behind boys and girls differently and that policymakers should take a more tailored approach to addressing the problems faced by LBCs.


The main contributions of this paper come from the large and representative sample, as well as the causal effects analysis of being left-behind on both academic performance and mental health. First, the paper uses comprehensive panel data from a representative and populous province in China, and the sample size is the largest one among LBC-related papers to the authors’ knowledge. Second, the paper separately examines the causal effects on the student outcomes of different migration strategies. Third, the paper analyzes the heterogeneous effects of different migration strategies on LBC gender. The authors believe that the paper makes a key contribution to the literature.



Wang, L., Zheng, Y., Li, G., Li, Y., Fang, Z., Abbey, C. and Rozelle, S. (2019), "Academic achievement and mental health of left-behind children in rural China: A causal study on parental migration", China Agricultural Economic Review, Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 569-582.



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