Joint Attention: A Foundation for Language Development

Joint Attention:

A Foundation for Language Development

What is Joint Attention? Joint attention is the act of a person sharing attention with another person towards a given object or event, and there is understanding between the two people that they are both interested in the same object or event. In order for an individual to demonstrate joint attention, he/she must be able to gain, maintain, and shift their attention. While engaged in joint attention, an individual is able to (non-verbally) communicate to another by using their eyes and looking at an object, and back at the other person. This shared moment not only allows for individuals to communicate, but also fosters development of social skills.

When does is start and what does it look like?  Joint attention starts very early in a child’s life and it’s first instances are usually between a child and his/her parent. These moments are when a child and the adult are both shifting their attention and eye sight back and forth from an object to the person. These examples can include pointing to a desired toy/object/food item/bottle, looking at a book together, or reaching out to be picked up. As a child grows into a toddler they should develop more skills such as turn taking during a game or requesting for help getting on a swing. A child can exhibit joint attention by responding or initiating. An example of a response would be if a parent and a child are playing together and the parent says, “Look at the puppy!” The child responds by following the parents gaze and point, and looks at the puppy. Depending on the child’s age and joint attention skills, he/she will start to check back in with the parent by alternating their gaze from the puppy to the parent, confirming they are attending to the puppy. An example of a child initiating joint attention would be if the child uses a gesture (holding up a closed container) along with eye contact (it is important the child looks at the eyes of the adult and not just at another part of the adult to confirm they understand the exchange taking place, and the adult is another person and not just a means to an end) to get the parent to take off the lid. If the child does not make eye contact with the adult, then joint attention has not been made and the child is just using the adult to accomplish a task. Think of a young child going to an adult, grabbing their hand (without looking at them) and pulling them over to a toy that may be on a high shelf. If eye contact isn’t made this child is just using the adult to accomplish the task of obtaining the toy that is out of reach. However, if a child grabs an adult by the hand, directs them to an object, point (and looks) at an object, then looks back at the adult, joint attention has been achieved!

How can I develop Joint Attention in my child?  The great thing about developing joint attention in a child is that anyone can do it with the correct knowledge, you don’t need to be a certified professional! Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is a key component. Use gestures, pointing, eye gazing, hand-over-hand (physically taking the child’s hand in your own to manipulate/point/reach to help the child accomplish a task or turn their gaze and attention towards the desired object) to help connect with the child. Once a child shows interest in an item, you can follow their lead and mimic their interest. By taking the object and bringing it to your face, you are hoping to get the child to look at both you and the object. Another great way to create joint attention is when a child needs help; whether it be getting onto a swing, needing a push on a swing, opening a lid (to a toy bin, a cap to a marker etc.). The goal is not for the child to verbally ask for help without making eye contact, but for the child to look at the person whom he/she is requesting for help. This eye contact ensures the child understands the situation, and has connected with the other person to request help. It is important to note that practicing joint attention in the child’s natural environment can help him/her achieve communication and social success at home, at school, and in the community.

Focus on…

  • Eye Contact
  • Pointing
  • Child Directed Play
  • Turn Taking Activities
  • Matching the Child’s Interest and Emotions

If your child is experiencing problems with joint attention, or if you have any questions regarding joint attention, please contact a Speech and Language Pathologist at Kid Power Therapy Services Inc. for more information!

Written by Ryan Hanson, M.A., CCC/SLP

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