ECI network member Dana Suskind recently met with HCEO to discuss her research on early learning, which lies at the intersection of education and health.

Suskind first became interested in early childhood development through her work as a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon. She began noticing the developmental disparities among children who had received cochlear implants. "Some of them would be talking and learning on par with their hearing peers, while others, at the same time out, would barely be able to communicate," she says. "It was a very painful difference to see. While the cochlear implant could bring sound to a child's brain, something else was needed to make those sounds have meaning."

This experience led her to learn more about early childhood development, including the importance of early language exposure for brain development. In 2010, Suskind founded the TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health at the University of Chicago. The TMW initiative develops and scales interventions that place parents and caregivers at the center of their children’s education. The programs focus "on the power of parents and language interaction in the first three years of life, as a way to impact educational disparities."

"We take what I like to call a public health model to early learning. Towards that end, we develop interventions to meet families where they are," Suskind says. To do this, the program incorporates home visiting and group-based interventions, as well as coordinates with maternity wards and pediatric clinics.
"What I think is important is when we think about the early learning system in this country, when does our education system begin? It primarily begins in kindergarten or maybe pre-K," Suskind says. "But this is really a divergence with the brain science that shows that learning is beginning at day one. What we hope is that this public health model can be part of this larger continuum. And this public health model, that puts parents and caregivers at the center, will be the beginning of the continuum of what the education system looks like in this country."
Suskind is Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago Director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, and Founder and Director of the Thirty Million Words® Initiative.