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January 21, 2012

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Helping Chongming kids who are 'left-behind'

CHEN Yuxuan, a nine-year-old girl in Shanghai's rural Chongming County, can't remember when she last saw her parents. She has no idea what they do or where they are, only that they work "far away."

For years she has been living with her 55-year-old grandparents on the largely agricultural island that her parents left years ago to find work, leaving her behind. She's excited that they will be coming home for this Spring Festival to a settlement that's known locally as "left-behind" village. It's a settlement of families relocated from the Three Gorges Dam area of Sichuan Province. She didn't want to show reporters her village or home but agreed to speak at her school.

Chen is one of an estimated 4,700 children of all ages living in Chongming. Nationwide, there are an estimated 23 million "left-behind" children under five years of age. Their parents have left them behind while they seek work in cities, part of a vast migration of people leaving the countryside for work in growing urban areas.

The plight of left-behind children is considered a national problem.

The number 23 million was reported last November by Deng Li, head of the Department for Children at the China Women's Federation, at the 2011 international symposium on early childhood development. She said many children may suffer psychological disorders due to lack of parental care. The total number of left-behind children under 18 is estimated at around 58 million.

The good news is that Chen's parents are home for the Spring Festival holiday, bringing her a pencil box and study materials. It's the first time she's seen them in many years and it feels more like home.

"I miss my mom and dad, especially because winter holiday is coming and everyone is celebrating family reunion during Spring Festival," she says.

Chen is luckier than many other left-behind children; she does well in school and has the confidence to make friends. The county government makes special efforts to take care of children like her; local statistics indicate they number 4,700, without one or both parents.

Every morning, her grandmother braids hair, makes breakfast and walks her to school. She walks the girl home every day after school, no matter the weather. She watches over her at night, lest she kick off her blankets.

While her grandmother takes care of her daily life, Chen's grandfather supervises study. He's quite strict, and even a math score of 99 isn't good enough, Chen says.

Wang Mengyao, her classmate and best friend, frequently comes over. Together they do their homework and watch TV.

"I rarely get calls from my parents since they always call home late at night when I've already gone to bed," Chen says. "I forgot where they are. But grandpa always tells me that if I get good marks, they can show off in front of their colleagues and feel proud of me."

Few jobs

Chongming's focus on ecology and tourism means the island is free of pollution and there's not much hustle and bustle. But the fertile land doesn't provide enough jobs; many must travel to other Shanghai suburbs or go further afield for work. Shanghai doesn't offer many new jobs to migrant workers.

Other children are not as fortunate as Chen. Their grandparents or guardians don't have much education. Many children don't receive much supervision and are at risk of getting into trouble. Without parental support, some are depressed and insecure.

"They face difficulties in health, education, daily life, security and mental development," says Huang Danfeng, moral education director of Chongming Ximen Elementary School. "The most serious problems are actually psychological because the love in their families is incomplete. Without family education from parents, they tend to suffer from loneliness and insecurity. They feel ignored."

Third-grader Chen is one of 50 left-behind children at the school.

Based on observation, teachers find that most of the children looked after by a single parent or relatives lack self-confidence.

"Even some smart children are very sensitive about talking about their families," Huang says. "To some extent, they only want to keep to themselves."

Living with grandparents emphasizes the generation gap and lack of family encouragement often leads to poor academic performance, lack of strong moral values and incomplete personality development, Huang says.

Some children are left pretty much on their own and their numbers increase as more people move to the cities. Many parents don't take their children because children will not have an urban residence certificate or hukou that entitles them to public education, health and other benefits. The hukou stays at the original family home.

Since the problem of unsupervised migrants' children is being recognized, schools and governments are making efforts to help the children.

Chongming Ximen Elementary School keeps individual files for each child, covering their background, living situation, academic performance and contacts of guardians and absent parents. This is regularly updated and children are monitored and given special attention.

Teachers contact parents and guardians through e-mail or QQ groups to update them on children's academic performance and social adjustment. Home visits are made at least once a semester. A newsletter "Family Education Times" is sent free to all homes to help children and guardians.

Big family

To strengthen the link between parents and children, parent-child activities are organized for traditional Chinese festivals. Parents and grandparents are invited to the school to make lanterns, make paper-cut designs and read with children. It helps warm the relationship and make children feel they receive care like other students who are not "left-behind." "Hand-in-Hand" teams provide emotional support; they are comprised of children, teachers and student peers who perform well. It gives children a chance to express themselves in an informal environment, make friends and draw encouragement.

"It is like a big family where these children can open their hearts and feel needed," Huang says, adding that they go on field trips.

"It's a way to care invisibly," she says. "Many cannot accept being classified as left-behind children, so we don't use that term in their presence. When talking about what they want, most say they want their parents back."

Zhou Jueye, 11, writes letters to her parents who are working in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, saying how much she misses them and hopes they come home as soon as possible.

Zhou lives with her 61-year-old grandmother who lives far from the school. She takes Zhou to and from school on a small motor scooter; it usually takes 20 minutes.

Zhou says she hopes to become a teacher one day because her own teachers are role models.

During class, teachers pay special attention to the children, making them more involved in class activities and giving them opportunities to show their talents and confidence. Children get a lot of praise and appreciation. Students who are slow in class get special, patient attention from teachers.

Almost half of the 50 left-behind children have received "Progressing Star" awards to help them become more confident, enterprising and tap their inner potential.

During the winter holiday, the school library, computer room and fitness room are open for these children. Volunteers from the neighborhood take them on various one-day tours of the island and help them learn about the environment so they in turn can advocate about environmental protection in their communities.

"It allows them to communicate and feel gratitude," Huang says.

Fifth-grader Zhou Xuan plans to take advantage of the school facilities over the winter holiday, since her parents are working full-time at a dairy farm in Fengxian District. There's no computer at home.

Left-behind children are supported by a fund set up by the local women's federation and Yingtong Group, a local business whose board chairman Chen Weifeng donated 1 million yuan (US$158,425). It will be used to help children from poor families and those who perform well in school and are well-behaved.


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