December 19, 2013
The power of parent talk to build babies’ brains is becoming a national conversation. Policy makers and media executives alike are paying more attention to the value of listening attentively to young children and encouraging the toddlers to speak more, thanks to the work of Dana Suskind, a professor and surgeon at University of Chicago Medicine.
Suskind, who leads the Thirty Million Word Initiative at the University organized and chaired a national convening in Washington, DC organized in partnership with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Although the government shutdown prevented federal officials from attending, the gathering convened dozens of researchers, practitioners and foundation leaders from around the country to explore collaborative, cross-sector strategies for promoting awareness of the importance of talking with children as a critical tool for learning and school readiness.
In November, Suskind spoke on a Hollywood panel arranged by Too Small To Fail, a national early childhood campaign organized by Hillary Clinton. Suskind is an advisor to the group. She explained to television producers and other media representatives the importance of considering the issue of boosting childhood conversation when they consider storylines for their programs.
“There seems to be a lot of excitement about early childhood issues,” said Suskind. “People are realizing the importance of parents talking to their children. Talk is a powerful tool for boosting their abilities, not just verbally but also mathematically by having the children hear and say more words about mathematics and spatial concepts.”
“But it’s just not a matter of having children say more words, it’s having parents listen and respond them. Unfortunately, in many homes, there is nothing but silence,” she added.
In addition to the gatherings in Washington and Los Angeles, Suskind and her team are working on local outreach, taking part for instance in a children’s literacy event organized in November by the Chicago Public Library, called Bookamania.
Work as an ear surgeon leads to interest in child talk
Suskind specializes in cochlear implantation, an operation that helps deaf children hear. She noticed from follow up visits a significant learning difference between children from advantaged and less advantaged homes in their learning achievement, which was due, she found to differences in the amount of talking parents did with children.
She accordingly established Project ASPIRE, a federally funded program to help parents and children talk more. “We see this as an asset based approach,” she explained. “The parents are a great resource and they want to help their children. We showed them how.”
The success with those families of children with hearing loss led to the Thirty Million Word Initiative, which she organized with other researchers on campus who do work in early childhood education. The project includes a 12-week program to equip parents with skills and motivation to speak more with their children.
Funding for her work comes from the University of Chicago's initiative on "Successful Pathways from School to Work," made possible by a gift from the Hymen Milgrom Supporting Organization, the Hemera Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.
By William Harms