June , 2018

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By Dr. Dana Suskind

America’s Wire Writers Group


More than 20 years ago, studies began appearing demonstrating that there is a vast vocabulary difference between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. In fact, a study by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley even determined that at age three there is an incredible 30 million word gap between wealthy and poor children.

Clearly, with a higher percentage of poor children among minority families, initiatives must be directed to help all children, but particularly in communities of color. All parents can adapt measures that reduce the gap and encourage vocabulary development in their children.

Seven years ago, I launched the Thirty Million Initiative to counsel and partner with parents on what they can do to improve learning and development opportunities for their children. My recent book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, explores the powerful science connecting parent talk to building a child’s brain and encourages parents to help their children reach their full potential.

It’s heartening to see the impact of parents who are adopting some of our recommendations.

Shurand Adams, 27, of Calumet City, Ill., has been working with her’ daughter, Teshyia, who is now five years old and just started kindergarten. From 2010 to 2012, the African American mother participated in a pilot study with other parents. Child development experts visited their homes and explained the science of children’s brain development. They discussed techniques that could be used in helping their children learn, such as the “Three Ts,” which encourage parents to “tune in, talk more and take turns.”

During the study, the children often wore recording devices that tracked every word spoken by the parent to the child, including the exchanges with the children. When the results were tabulated, it showed a marked increase in word counts and conversations. Adams discussed what the guidance has meant for her and Teshyia.

“Before the project, I did not know that a child’s learning process starts at 0-3 years, I always thought it started at five once they start school,” Adams said. “Once the project explained it to me, it dawned on me that yes, it starts earlier because that’s when they take in everything. They are like sponges. When the project started, it gave me a boost of confidence even though I wasn’t so good in school, it gave me a boost of confidence in teaching her…”

Moreover, Adams said she is still putting into action the things that she learned from the project. “If she says, ‘There is an airplane,” I respond by saying, ‘The airplane is in the sky with the clouds, the birds.’ I will bring out more things to say about that airplane…I try to stretch the senses more.”

Previously, Adams said she would read her daughter a book, but not give her a chance to respond to the book. “But that is not giving her a chance to learn and tell me what’s going on in her mind and in the book,” Adams said. “I was just telling her what it said.”

Adams said the most rewarding aspect is the time that she is spending with her daughter. “I am able to see all this growth,” she said. “What motivates me to keep talking to my child? I want her to do better in life. I don’t want her to have hardships. If I start this early, I have a better chance of seeing that goal come true.”

All this proves that one of the most important things we can do as parents is have conversations with our children. Drawing from an array of disciplines, my book explains the importance of starting at birth, even before your sweet, lovable baby can talk. Why? How and how much you talk with your young child literally builds his or her brain. Parent talk can dramatically improve school readiness and lifelong learning in everything from math to art.

Indeed, parent-child talk is a fundamental, critical factor in building grit, self-control, leadership skills, and generosity. It is crucial to making the most in life of the luck you have with your genes. The book describes this new scientific perspective on what works and what doesn’t. Parents can discover how to create the best “language environments” for children by following the simple structure of the Three Ts-Tune In; Talk More; Take Turns.

Our team has worked with hundreds of families and impacted thousands; now TMW’s insights and successful, measured approaches are available to all.

Whether a parent is talking about the smell of a diaper, or the color of a flower, or the shape of a triangle, the Three Ts are designed to provide the foundation, from the first day of life, for the rich early language environment essential for building a child’s brain.

In the scenario designed by TMW, that’s exactly what hap¬pens. Parents learn to be aware of what their child is focused on, then to become part of it, enhancing the relationship, helping to im¬prove the skills being used in play and, through the ensuing verbal interaction, helping develop their child’s brain. The Three Ts encapsulate the strategies that teach parents:

 How talking with your child helps improves math and spatial reasoning, and prepares them for success in school and life.

 How to teach children determination and build morality. Engaging a child’s decision-making skills early in life helps your child develop his or her own sense of right and wrong, good and bad.

 How self-control is built. Communication gives your child a sense of control, allowing him or her to develop a sense of responsibility.

 Why it is important to tune in to your child and how to encourage your child to tune in to you.

 How narration and descriptive language help your child solve problems and build vocabulary.

The more familiar your child becomes with how words are used to give meaning, the more he or she begins to understand how basic communication works, and the more inclined he or she will be to respond. It’s important to engage in conversation with your child and provide open-ended questions-talk with your child, instead of to your child. The brain is closer to a muscle than a sponge: practicing interaction helps strengthen the ability to not only receive information, but formulate responses.

This book reveals how and why the key to nurturing successful lives is talking with children in ways that build their brains. Your family-and our nation-need to know.

Dana Suskind, MD, author of the book, Thirty Million Words: Building A Child’s Brain, (Dutton, September 2015), is Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago, Director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implantation Program, and Founder and Director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative. Based on scientific research that shows the critical importance of early language exposure on the developing child, Thirty Million Words helps parents enhance their home language environment in order to optimize their child’s brain development and, therefore, his or her ability to learn.

America’s Wire is an independent, nonprofit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Our stories can be republished free of charge by newspapers, websites and other media sources.

For more information, visit www.americaswire.org or contact Michael K. Frisby at mike@frisbyassociates.com.

Photo: Dr. Dana Suskind

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