New Report by NYU and East China Normal University Researchers Find a Healthy Well-Being Among Chinese Children With Some Exceptions

A new study of children’s well-being in Shanghai finds that first-graders are socially and emotionally healthy, with most performing average or above average academically. The study, by the New York University-East China Normal University Institute for Social Development at NYU Shanghai, is the first to develop a descriptive understanding of children’s well-being in contemporary China and examines the two major contexts—family and school—that shape children’s health.

China has the world’s second largest child population at 309 million, accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s total population.

“Given the increasing income disparity China faces, our findings can help us understand the factors that nurture or impede a child’s healthy development and hold implications for the future of China’s society,” said Wen-Jui Han, one of the Institute’s directors and a professor at the NYU Silver School of Social Work.

The data were collected through surveys of parents of 2,200 first-grade children in seven school districts in Shanghai, as well as surveys of the children’s teachers and school administrators. The research project serves as the inaugural research endeavor by the Institute, which, founded in 2013, examines issues of poverty and inequality in China and the United States. The same parents will be surveyed in future years, at least until the end of elementary school years, as part of what is a longitudinal study of their children’s health and well-being.

With a few exceptions, researchers found a happy and healthy group of first graders:

  • Boys and children from low-income or rural, hukou status families tended to perform less well in school than the children of urban professionals and have a worse socio-emotional well-being.
  • Seventy percent of children had a normal weight, with 30 percent considered overweight or obese, a rate that is similar to the US based on the most recent report by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children were more likely to be overweight in families with higher family incomes, unlike in the United States.

In general, these children have happily married parents in their mid-thirties who are gainfully employed. The average family annual income ($29,000) places these children in China’s middle class. The survey results suggest that parents are providing a nurturing home environment with high academic expectations.

Children attend large elementary schools averaging about 1,000 students and with highly educated administrators. While schools are seen as having adequate classroom space, libraries, computer rooms, and music rooms, other facilities such as gymnasiums, auditoriums, and multi-purpose rooms were viewed as lacking. In addition, many of these schools are situated in economically mixed neighborhoods dealing with issues that include tensions between local and migrant residents, littered streets, and heavy traffic. Though some shared concerns about their school facilities or neighborhoods, teachers were found to be educated, enthusiastic about their jobs, and have a high degree of career satisfaction.

“This powerful information provides a contemporary snapshot of these children’s experiences and the first effort of a longitudinal survey that provide us with new insights into children’s well-being in China,” said Jun Wen, an Institute director, professor of sociology and social work at East China Normal University, and the head of ECNU’s Institute of Sociology.