How parent talk can change the world

Dana Suskind loves to share a quote by Margaret Mead.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Just two hours into my visit with her staff, I get it. This group of 18 is out to change the world. Perhaps more important, they believe they are going to change the world.

I spent Thursday with the staff at the Thirty Million Words initiative at the University of Chicago. Suskind and this group of 18 believe that teaching parents to talk to their children during the first three years of a child’s life can erase the academic achievement gap we see in children who are born into low-income families.

Beth Suskind, Dana’s sister-in-law and co-director of the initiative, gave me a preview of a video she’s producing that shows parents using the techniques the Thirty Million Words’ staff teaches. As of Thursday, it wasn’t finished, but here’s a two-minute clip of the video.

Children in poverty hear on average 32 million fewer words during their first three years of life than children who are born into affluent families. This is important because science tells us that language — not socioeconomics, race or gender — is the key factor in a child’s brain development and ability to learn.

The Thirty Million Words initiative isn’t a feel-good program. This is an evidence-based scientific program. Every staff member is part of one or more scientific research project. After seven years of meticulously documenting behaviors and techniques, the researchers are showing that the Thirty Million Words initiative is making a difference in children’s brain development and their ability to start school kindergarten ready.

I have about six hours of taped interviews to transcribe. Once that’s done next week, I will post a series of stories that will explain in more detail the work and science behind the initiative and how Pensacola might benefit from the outreach Suskind and her staff are doing in the South Side of Chicago.

I must admit I drank the Kool-Aid these people offered me. Suskind and her staff are onto something. And if they can make a difference in the South Side of Chicago, then surely Thirty Million Words can make a difference in Pensacola and Escambia County.