Culling lessons from Chicago in early learning

  • May 5, 2016
  • /   Randy Hammer
  • /   video

I’m in Chicago. And if you want to know why, watch this video.

The woman who pounds her fist on the table and says Pensacola could become the first early learning city is Dana Suskind, a surgeon who specializes in cochlear implants at the University of Chicago Medicine. She also is the founder and director of the Thirty Million Words initiative, a research program that studies and teaches the critical importance of early language exposure on the development of children and their brains.

And when I say “early exposure,” I mean the first three years of a child’s life.

By the age of 3, a child’s brain has completed about 85 percent of its physical growth. That doesn’t mean the brain stops developing after three years, Suskind says. It just emphasizes how critical those early years are.

The Studer Community Institute, which coincidentally is in its third year of development, invited Suskind to Pensacola because our research found that just 66 percent of children in Escambia County public schools show up for their first day of class kindergarten ready. That means 34 percent aren’t ready, and many of these children show up for kindergarten two years behind their classmates. School for this 34 percent is a constant struggle of catch up. And many, if not most, never do.

Close to 500 people showed up at Washington High School to hear Suskind talk in March about her program and the work she’s doing on the South Side of Chicago, a community scarred by poverty, crime and a multitude of social challenges.

Suskind’s Thirty Million Words initiative is partly based on the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas who in the 1960s looked for a way to improve the academic achievement of low-income children.

Here’s what they found:

The language environment of children born into poverty was dramatically different than children born into more affluent families. Those differences could be correlated to later academic performance. Both the quantity and quality of language from birth to 3 years olds could be linked to predictable disparities in educational achievement.

Hart and Risley divided their research participants into professional and welfare families. Children in a more affluent professional family heard 11 million words during their first year of life. Children growing up in poverty in a welfare household heard just 3 million words.

By age 3, children from professional families heard on average 45 million words. Children from welfare families … just 13 million.

The difference: 32 million words.

Suskind recently published a book about her work, “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain.” What Suskind has learned and what science tells us is:

— The essential factor that determines the future learning trajectory of a child is the early language environment. It’s all about how much and how a parent talks to a child.

— It’s not the socioeconomic status of children, nor their race or gender or whether they’re the middle child or the first child in the family.

— “The words we hear, how many we hear, and how they are said” in the first three years of our life are the determining factors in our development, writes Suskind. “The significance of this cannot be overemphasized since this window of time, if neglected, is lost forever.”

It’s important here to note that it’s not just the number of words that is important, but also the type of words. And this struck me as the saddest part of the research that’s been done with children from professional and welfare families.

Children from welfare families hear significantly more negative language than children from professional families. An affirmation is language that reflects “you’re good, you’re right.” Prohibitions are language that reflect, “you’re bad, you’re wrong.”

Children from professional families heard 166,000 affirmations during their first year of life, and 26,000 prohibitions. Children from welfare families heard 26,000 affirmations and 57,000 prohibitions.

The ratio of praise to criticism is reversed for children of welfare families compared to children of professional families.

But here’s perhaps the most important lesson Suskind has learned from her years of working with families.

Mothers who are on welfare and struggle with poverty love their children just as much as mothers from more affluent backgrounds. Mothers living in poverty today were most likely born into poverty. And they talk to their children the way they heard others talking to their children.

We cannot underestimate the importance of parenting. Yet, we don’t really train people how to parent or how to talk to their children. We literally just throw people into the frying pan of raising a child. “You’ll figure it out.” That’s about the most training and advice new mothers get.

There’s got to be a better way.

As Suskind says, “I believe that every baby, every child, from every home, from every socioeconomic status, deserves the chance to fulfill his or her highest potentials. We just have to make it happen.”

We just have to make it happen.

That probably does the best job of explaining why I’m in Chicago.

How do we make it happen in Pensacola? How do we create a community where every baby, every child, from every home has the chance to fulfill his or her potential?

This won’t be easy. It could be impossible. But you know what? We used to think that flying to the moon was impossible.

Over the next few days, I’ll post some updates about what I learn in Chicago.

“We just have to make it happen.”

I keep coming back to that line because Suskind is absolutely right. And Pensacola is a good place to start. It’s the perfect place in my mind to create that first Early Learning City.