Migrate with Parent(s) or Not? Developmental Outcomes between Migrant and Left-behind Children from Rural China

  • Qin Zhang
  • Yuhan Luo
  • Hao Chen
  • Xinghui Zhang
  • Senbi Deng
  • Weixi Zeng
  • Yun Wang


This study aimed to examine the psychological and behavioral effects of family migration on left-behind (left by one or two parents) and migrant children. Participants included children from the National Children’s Study of China (N = 18,396, aged 7–15 years, 50.6% boys) including both left-behind and migrant children (n = 1168, 839 and 1185, respectively). Children from non-migrant families were also examined (n = 5126) as a reference group. The results indicated that left-behind children with two migrant parents have greater depression and engage in more unhealthy behaviors than do non-migrant children from rural families, and left-behind children with one migrant parent showed comparable developmental outcomes to non-migrant children. Family factors were found to be positively associated with migrant children’s development. Teacher support was found to be more important for middle school students than for elementary school students in terms of school liking. Belief in a just world was more beneficial for mediating girls’ depression than boys’. Furthermore, for girls, the negative predictive effect of perceived parental support for unhealthy behaviors is smaller for left-behind children with two migrant parents and migrant children than that for non-migrant children. For boys, the negative predictive effect of perceived parental support on unhealthy behaviors is greater for migrant children than that for non-migrant children. This research depicts a comprehensive model of how family migration affects children’s development, and its findings could be of value in regard to creating family- and school-guiding policies for migrant workers.


Left-behind children Migrant children Rural family Child development China 



The authors would like to thank Dr. Junming Huang (CompleX Lab, Web Sciences Center, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China) and all supporting staff at the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, Beijing Normal University. The work was supported by the The Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China (Basic and Special projects for the national science and technology, Grant NO. 2006FY110400), the National Social Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 16CSH050), the from the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (Grant No. ZYGX2015J167) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 71731004).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human Subjects Approval Statement

This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the National Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University and is recorded as BNU_A_2009005.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Qin Zhang
    • 1
  • Yuhan Luo
    • 2
  • Hao Chen
    • 3
  • Xinghui Zhang
    • 4
  • Senbi Deng
    • 5
  • Weixi Zeng
    • 1
  • Yun Wang
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Public AdministrationUniversity of Electronic Science and Technology of ChinaChengduChina
  2. 2.State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and LearningBeijing Normal UniversityBeijingChina
  3. 3.Department of Social PsychologyNan Kai UniversityTianjinChina
  4. 4.Department of Education and PsychologyHainan Normal UniversityHaikouChina
  5. 5.Chengdu Academy of Education SciencesChengduChina

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