The Power of Words: Building a Child’s Brain
Dana L. Suskind, MD
Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics
Director, Pediatric Cochlear Implantation Program
Founder and Director, Thirty Million Words Initiative
Founder and Director, Project ASPIRE
I began my surgical career as a pediatric head and neck surgeon specializing in cochlear implantation. I soon discovered, though, that a successful cochlear implant didn’t always ensure a child’s success in learning to speak or understand language. My search to understand why led me to encounter the concept of the 30 million-word gap and how this profound disparity has a negative impact on everything from literacy to school readiness to academic achievement.
Realizing that a socioeconomic gap influenced the cognitive development of all children, hearing and deaf alike, I decided that my greatest contribution as a physician would be to dedicate my research and clinical life to addressing the problem of health disparities, specifically early language disparities, in order to find positive, effective ways of eliminating them. Taking the Hippocratic Oath meant that my obligation to my patients didn’t end when I finished operating; it ended when my patients were well. I knew that it was time to step out of the comfort of the operating room into the wider world of social science in order to truly affect a change for our nation’s children.
Fueled by the knowledge that every parent possesses the key to their child’s optimum brain development—and most do not even know it—I launched the Thirty Million Words® Initiative (TMW). TMW is an evidence-based, parent-directed program designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain. Our multimedia interventions, developed in both English and Spanish, translate emerging brain science into practical lessons to increase parent knowledge of child development and provide caregivers with an easy to remember—and easy to understand—set of research-based strategies that can be readily implemented in daily routines. Weekly linguistic feedback, video modeling, and goal setting engage caregivers in tracking their success.
Tested in randomized control study, our flagship curriculum, TMW-Home Visiting, was shown to improve language outcomes for both parents and children alike. We have since adapted it for use in hospitals for the newborn hearing screening, pediatric clinics, and Early Head Start (forthcoming). All of our interventions map onto existing social and health infrastructures—like childcare centers and pediatric well-baby visits—to strengthen children’s early language environments. We work across three tiers of impact: individual, community, and population level.
My book, , explains why the most important—and astoundingly simple—thing any parent can do for their child’s future success is to talk to him or her. It details the science of brain development and discusses strategies that enrich children’s early language environments and expand their capacity to learn. It also shows how this information can be harnessed to solve some of our nation’s most pressing problems.
TMW is deeply rooted in scientific inquiry and research. We believe good science and translational research can fuel positive social change and that every parent and community deserves access to this life-changing information. TMW is supported by a broad coalition of public and private partnerships and is an extension of Project ASPIRE, an evidence-based intervention we designed for children with hearing loss to support their listening and speaking development. My ultimate goal, and that of my dedicated team, is to help all children reach their full potentials and to close the ever-widening achievement gap.