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What Is Joint Attention and Why Is It So Important

Published June 23rd, 2022 by Mfarin42

Blog author: Miriam Fruchter, MA, CCC-SLP

 

Picture the following scene: a parent is holding their child on their lap with an open book. The parent reads the words on the page. The child points to a picture on that page, then looks up at the parent and vocalizes. The parent then nods, smiles, and points to that picture as well. The parent and child are focused together on the picture in the book. This interaction is called joint attention, the shared focus of two individuals on an object.

Joint attention is achieved when one individual alert another to an object by means of eye-gazing, pointing or other verbal or non-verbal indications. It requires the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention. Establishing joint attention is significant for building social-communication and cognitive skills. What starts as pointing to a desired toy/object/food or reaching out to be picked up should later develop into turn-taking during a game or ‘requesting’ for help getting a particular item.

How does joint attention develop?

Joint attention starts to develop from infancy. Between 6-12 months, a baby develops eye gaze and acts as a passive participant during joint attention with his/her caregiver. For example, early joint attention can be demonstrated when a baby looks at his mother and then shifts his gaze to see what she’s looking at. The baby becomes an initiator in the parent-child relationship when he begins to look at an object as well.

At a slightly later stage, between 12-15 months, a baby will begin to point and gesture and learn that pointing is an intentional act. At this point, the baby can initiate new joint attention moments by vocalizing and gesturing toward objects. The baby might look at a toy, their parent, and then return to the toy; this suggests that the baby enjoys having the parent look at the same item. As the child develops, these same joint attention skills are used to focus together on a play activity or to request a particular toy or food from an adult while looking at the adult for assistance.

How can I help my child develop joint attention?

  • Face to face interaction – sit directly opposite your child at eye level and encourage your child to look at you.
  • Play and practice turn taking – play peek-a-boo or an “I’m gonna catch you” game, use nursery rhymes or music
  • Play a game of hide and seek
  • Perform an activity together such as doing a puzzle or looking at the pictures in a book
  • Rolling a ball or pushing a car back and forth on a tray or in a box
  • Encourage your child to shift their attention from what they have to what you have
  • Use highly engaging and motivating activities such as bubble blowing or knocking down a block tower
  • Be dramatic, use an animated tone of voice, gestures, and exaggerated facial expressions to gain your child’s attention
  • Hold hands and dance to your child’s favorite song
  • Talk to your child and imitate their sounds and gestures
  • Follow your child’s lead – if you can’t gain their attention, join in what they are engaged in (copy your child’s actions even if it isn’t what you had in mind for them to do)

As Winnie the Pooh says, “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you; you have to go to them sometimes.”

  • Give lots of praise and positive reinforcement when your child initiates or responds to joint attention. Try to be as specific as possible, such as, "I love the way you’re looking at me”.

What if I’m concerned that my child is not using joint attention?

Some children, however, don’t develop joint attention the way we expect them to. They might not be making eye contact and don’t quickly attend to what you’re showing them. If this is the case with your child, please reach out to your pediatrician, your child’s daycare provider or teacher, or us. We can assist you with getting your child the assistance they may need.

Don’t wait too long as your intuition as the caregiver is usually right when it comes to your child’s development.

In Parent’s magazine, there’s an article about raising kids with the following quote: “A new mother’s top priority is often to make sure her baby is safe, and she will have a low threshold for sensing anything amiss” (Dr. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). It is also known that the earlier you reach out for assistance, the sooner your child can hopefully receive the right services to help develop joint attention.

Three easy activities you can do at home with your child:

  1. Blow bubbles and say “look”. Pop the bubbles as your child watches and tracks the bubbles. Blow more bubbles and when your child looks at the bubbles, repeat the word, “look” and keep popping them.
  2. Blow up a balloon but don’t knot it. Say “look” and let it go when your child looks at it.
  3. Hold your child’s favorite toy up by your eyes. This will encourage them to look at you and reach or point to what they want. Once you've initiated eye contact, you’re on your way to establishing joint attention.

Please keep in mind: “Making eye contact with your child is an important tool for connection and communication.” (Dr. Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin, and Roslyn Ann Duffy, The Power of Nonverbal Communication)

 

Mother and daughter photo created by Racool_studio - www.freepik.com

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