School Counseling and Junior High Dropout

One out of four students drop out before graduating from junior high. Part of the problem is that students feel like the school does not care about them and lack a sense of belonging.

In China, the social and economic gap between rural and urban areas remains immense, especially within the realm of education. While nearly all students in large urban cities attend high school, less than half of poor, rural children will enter an academic secondary school.


In rural China today, as much as 30% of students drop out of junior high school. As China continues to develop, the demand for unskilled labor will decline, leaving junior high dropouts with fewer employment opportunities. In order to sustain economic growth, China will need to supply a more educated workforce to meet an increasing demand for skilled labor. Given that two out of every three children grow up in rural areas, it is crucial that the rural dropout issue be addressed.

High opportunity costs and high school tuition levels are known to be major impediments to keeping rural kids in school. However, in addition to economic influences, psychological and social factors may also lead students to drop out of middle school. Previous REAP projects targeting economic constraints were unable to completely address the junior high dropout problem. In informal interviews, countless students have complained of a lack of social support from teachers, parents and peers as a main reason for leaving school. In China's competitive school system, teachers are incentivized to pay greater attention to better-performing students. As a result, poorer-performing students report being ignored or even ridiculed by their teachers. Furthermore, it is common for a group of students who feel alienated to exert negative influence upon each other and encourage one another to drop out, thereby resulting in entire cliques of students leaving school at once.

A common approach to dealing with students’ psychological and social problems is through school counselors. In rural areas, these sorts of counselors may be especially important: rural teachers usually do not have the incentives or training to care for students beyond their formal responsibilities; parents are often busy working, many of them far away from home, and have little time to build significant relationships with their teenage children. A school counselor can be hired to fill this “care gap” and help students’ work through psychological and social problems.

These counselors’ main duty is to serve as a school-based support system for students and act as an important resource to students who feel isolated in their school community. Furthermore, these counselors teach students “life skills,” such as how to deal with emotions, seek help, and develop more positive relationships with their teachers and peers; educational programs such as this may equip students with the tools to address their sense of isolation at school so that they can stay in school.


Can school counselors help students feel cared for at school and help reduce dropout?

REAP has three objectives to test the efficacy of school counseling in China’s rural schools:

  • Develop a comprehensive school counselor training program that is cost effective, can be implemented on a larger scale, and that successfully prepares counselors to serve as support and educational resources in poor, rural schools.
  • Provide clear, quantitative evidence about the effect of one-on-one counseling and life skills training on the dropout rates, psychological health, and educational performance of junior high students.
  • If the school counseling program demonstrates a positive impact on rural students, REAP will work with policymakers to extend the program to areas in which dropout is chronic. 



The school counseling trial program will involve 60 randomly selected schools in Dingxi and Tianshui, two cities in Gansu province. To understand the needs of students in our sample schools, we will first conduct a baseline survey in these schools in September 2012. 

Next, experts from Stanford University, Peking University, and Beijing Normal University will collaborate to develop a full school counseling curriculum, training program, and protocol for bringing school counselors to rural schools.

We hired professional school and university counselors from Beijing to train rural teachers on a standardized approach to one-on-one counseling and how to teach a life skills course.

We will then work with existing teachers at our sample schools to train them in how to conduct one-on-one counseling.The training is a week-long retreat led by professional counselors at the university level from Beijing Normal University and Beijing Forestry University and experienced school counselors.

In addition to one-on-one counseling, school counselors will also teach a scripted life skills courses to first-year and second-year junior high students. 

In September 2013 and March 2014, we will return to the schools to conduct a midline and evaluation (endline) survey, respectively, and find out if the intervention had an impact. 


After analyzing data gathered from 74 junior high schools and 7,495 students in rural China, we find that school counseling has positive impacts.

FINDING 1: Students with school counselors experience less learning anxiety and drop out less in the short term.

FINDING 2: School counseling also reduces dropout and learning anxiety among “high-risk” students in both the short and the long-term. These are students who are older and have friends who have already dropped out of school.


Policymakers looking to reduce dropout in rural junior high schools need to consider the impact of anxiety and psychological stress. Interventions that aim to give students the social support they need may be hugely important in keeping kids in rural schools. 


Ford Foundation