Start Early. Start well.

August 29, 2022

'Education Begins on the First Day of Life,' Says Surgeon Who Wants to Build Kids' Brainpower

By Erin Duffy 

When Dr. Dana Suskind takes a child from the arms of their worried parents and heads into the operating room, she knows the great responsibility of performing surgery on the delicate structure of the ear won’t fall on her alone.

Dana SuskindDr. Dana Suskind

To conduct cochlear implant surgeries, the pediatric surgeon relies on a team. Nurses. An anesthesiologist. A surgical technician. Everyone pitches in and has a critical role to play checking instruments or monitoring vital signs. All work together for the good of their tiny patient.  

So why, she wonders, are parents in America too often left to their own devices when it comes to their important job of raising young children? Where is their community support, their backup, their version of a surgical A-team?  

Suskind will detail her vision of what a more supportive world for families can look like at this year’s Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference, which returns to Kearney, Neb., on Sept. 19. Suskind will deliver the conference’s opening keynote address, weaving together her expertise in pediatric medicine, brain development, and parent advocacy. The closing keynote speaker is Barry Ford, J.D., president and CEO of Council for a Strong America. 

The free Thriving Children event focuses on the connections between early childhood education and community and economic vitality. The conference attracts national, state, and local leaders in fields like business, education, health care, and economic development who want to build a better early childhood system. Learn more about the conference and register here

Suskind contends family-friendly policies, like parental leave and access to affordable, high-quality child care provided by early educators who are valued and compensated accordingly, would undoubtedly help children and their caregivers. She isn’t just talking about legislative action, but a societal mind shift: how can we all do more to support parents, young children, and teachers during the crucial brain-building period of the early years?  

Nearly 90 percent of brain growth takes place during the first five years of life, when neural connections form the building blocks for future growth and learning. Loving parents and trusted caregivers serve as “brain architects,” helping children build brainpower through language and experiences: talking, singing, pointing to the “doggie” in the park.  

But unpredictable or inflexible work schedules, a lack of paid leave, and the prohibitive cost of high-quality child care often place barriers in the path of parents as they work to build their children’s brains, Suskind said. That’s where she’d like to see society—workplaces, policymakers, community leaders—step in with more robust supports. 

“We all have not only a role to play in supporting parents and caregivers but indeed, we all benefit from it, because a healthy next generation ensures the strength of our communities and our nation,” she said in an interview with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.  

Suskind says her foray into child development and parent empowerment was a natural extension of her work in the operating room. In addition to being a practicing surgeon, she is the best-selling author of “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain” and “Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child's Potential, Fulfilling Society's Promise.” And she’s the co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, a research institute at the University of Chicago. 

“When you really think about it, hearing isn’t about the ears, it’s about the brain, communication, it’s about healthy development,” Suskind said.  

She interprets the Hippocratic oath—the code of ethics that guides doctors—as “your obligation to your patient doesn’t end when you finish a surgery, or a clinic visit, but rather when your patients do well.” 

“And for me, what became so clear as an implant surgeon, is that here I was doing the same surgery on beautiful little children who had all the same potential to learn to talk and mainstream educationally and socially, and here you saw these huge disparities in outcomes,” she said. “It was really that which was the impetus to try to understand why these disparities happened and more importantly, what I could do about it.” 

Families living in poverty, lacking support, or dealing with other stressors can contribute to what is called the “opportunity gap” among children. In “Parent Nation,” Suskind emphasizes all the learning that takes place before a child even steps foot inside a classroom.  

“Education begins on the first day of life and not the first day of school,” she writes. “By the first day of kindergarten, there are real differences among children. Some arrive ready to learn. For others, it’s already remedial. Time and again, we have failed to ... appreciate the importance of the first years of life and the necessity of getting those years right.”  

Suskind wants Thriving Children attendees to not just grasp the importance of the early years but commit to enacting change.  

“I want them to be inspired that they are a key factor in changing the lives of children and families in this country,” she said. “I want them to look at each other and join together to make Nebraska a better state for all children.” 
Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers. 

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