The widening education gap between the rich and the poor is not news to those who work in education, many of whom have been struggling to close the gap beginning the day poor children enter kindergarten or preschool. But one unlikely soldier has joined the fight: a pediatric surgeon who wants to get started way before kindergarten. She wants to start closing the gap the day babies are born.
When Dr. Dana Suskind began doing cochlear implants on infants at the University of Chicago—a cutting-edge surgical technique that allows once-deaf babies to hear—in her follow-ups with families she noticed a stark difference in how the now-hearing children acquired language. Once they could hear, some children’s language skills thrived and grew, while others languished. Why this was so began to nag at her. What was causing some children to leap ahead in their language skills?
The difference turned out to be the words children heard from their parents and caregivers, millions of them. Baby talk, explaining and describing, asking questions even when they weren’t going to get an answer — adults “using their words” is the thing that some parents and caregivers do thousands of time a day that builds a baby’s brain.
While auditing a graduate-level course on child language development at the University of Chicago, Suskind heard about the groundbreaking Hart and Risley study on the differences in how parents from different income levels interacted with their children. After painstakingly following around families and recording how often they talked to their children, Hart and Risley found that the children of professional parents heard approximately 11 million words in a year, while children from poor welfare families heard only 3 million. Extrapolated over time, Hart and Risley surmised that, by the time poor children turned 4, they had heard 30 million fewer words than their richer counterparts.
There was a direct correlation between the children who’d heard a lot of parent talk and how prepared they were to learn once they arrived at school. Hart and Risley wrote, “With few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies [grew] and the higher the children’s IQ test scores at age 3 and later.”
For Suskind, a lightbulb went on.
“The truth is, much of what you see in children born into poverty is analogous to children born deaf,” Suskind said. “It’s a really important point. The most fundamental science shows that it’s really language, and all that comes with it, the brain-building aspect of things, that makes a difference.”
Bringing Parents On Board
In Suskind’s new book, “Thirty Million Words,” she explains the research behind the word gap in detail, along with her research-based initiative of the same name, aimed at boosting children’s brains in the first three years of their lives. Working together with researchers at the University of Chicago, Suskind and her team have created an action-based curriculum already used in home visits with 200 families of infants and young children, all of whom will be followed all the way to kindergarten. Their upcoming maternity ward curriculum will launch soon with 350 families, and they hope to expand the program to pediatric well-child visits.
Suskind’s vision was not just to give parents a directive — you need to talk more to your child. She wanted them to understand why. Understanding that you are the architect of your child’s early brain development, said Suskind, is “extremely powerful.”
Many parents believe that because they didn’t do well in school themselves, they have no business “teaching” their babies anything. But showing them how simply talking, even baby talking (which Suskind calls “child-directed speech,” and said gets an undeserved bad rap), to their children can make a difference, changes their minds.
“This is the most empowering, affirming science that you can share with parents,” Suskind said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘You’re the baby’s most important teacher,’ because they don’t really believe it. You have to show them.”
Of course, some words are more powerful than others. In a 2014 report on the “PBS NewsHour” regarding the word gap, a similar effort to increase parent awareness in Providence, Rhode Island, used a Language Environment Analysis (LENA) word pedometer to count the number of words that low-income children heard in a day. Then a social worker would tally the word counts to show parents how much they were, or weren’t, interacting with their child. The report found that the LENA counted the words, but couldn’t assess the message. In other words, as correspondent John Tulenko pointed out, “Damn, why do you always make such a mess?” counted the same number of words as “Honey, you are cute, let’s clean you up.”
Hart and Risley’s research found the message counted as much as the number of words, and the number of encouraging words also differed across socioeconomic lines. They found children in low-income families “heard more than double the negative remarks per hour” compared with the children of professionals, who were much more likely to hear “Good job!” or “You’re right!”
“Even without science, we know intuitively that saying ‘shut up’ 30 million times is not going to help a child develop into an intelligent, productive, stable adult,” Suskind writes. She said that teaching parents the right kind of positive talk is built into the curriculum, and will be monitored for their ongoing longitudinal study of Thirty Million Words outcomes.
“The [Thirty Million Words] home visiting curriculum has an entire module devoted to encouragements — specifically person-based and process-based praise — which has been very well received by parents,” she said. “We explain the difference between praising the child versus praising the child for what he or she is doing, and how the latter actually builds resilience and determination in young children.”
Suskind found that, once parents understood the science of language-building, many were eager to try it out. To show parents how baby brain-building is easier than they might think, the Thirty Million Words team broke down language-building into three steps:
* Tune In. “Tuning in” asks parents to follow the child’s lead, to stop what they are doing and join their child, engaging and connecting with them. Often this step means parents need to get down on the floor and help build the Lego castle, or color a page in the coloring book.
* Talk More. Just like it sounds: Use more words and a rich vocabulary. Narrate the changing of a diaper or doing laundry, use descriptive words. Talk about the past or the future.
* Take Turns. Suskind said many parents say, “But my baby doesn’t have any words! How can we have a conversation?” Viewing young children as a conversational partner means parents can respond to anything — a gesture, gurgle or burp — to begin showing young children how to have a conversation.
Here, Suskind slyly slips in a “fourth T”: Turn off the technology to engage with your child. “We’re all at risk now, the technology is so seductive,” said Suskind, admitting that families of all income levels should find time to peel themselves away from technology to tune in and talk. While it’s not realistic to imagine never again getting immersed in a smartphone, understanding why technology doesn’t grow babies’ brains is valuable.
Human brains are hardwired for social interaction, and the brain-building benefits of Tuning In, Talking More, and Taking Turns happen when it’s coming from a real human being, not a TV or tablet. Yet there are certain technologies that can actually increase social interaction: “A recent study shows that if you had a Skype with your grandmother,” Suskind said, “somebody on the other side of the screen responding [to your child], that counts! A human being on the other side of the technology works.”
Suskind’s passion for talk is infectious, and she hopes to turn not only parents who have benefited from the Three Million Words program into evangelists, but teachers and day-care providers, too. She encourages educators to tell parents about the science of talking to children, and to explain that any opportunity, even the most mundane, is an opportunity to practice the Three Ts. Especially reading a book together.
“It’s really about having a conversation over the book,” she said. “You don’t have to read every word if the child doesn’t want to. It’s really about having a conversation, tuning in to what your baby is interested in, talking about the pictures.”
Near the end of “Thirty Million Words,” Suskind writes about James, a young dad who used the Three Ts with his son, Marcus, and then began telling everyone in his life about how he learned to talk to children. He even enlisted the help of his son’s day-care teacher.
“She knew a bit about it, but not about Tuning In or the fact that watching TV doesn’t teach words in a way that stick,” James told Suskind. “When I learned new things, I always brought them to her and she would start using them at the day care.”
Suskind said this kind of spreading the word is crucial to getting the information out. “Sure, I want teachers to read it [the book],” Suskind said. “But I want them to feel empowered, I want them to become evangelists. Because, unless the whole population understands how important parents and teachers are, we’re never going to get the investment.”