Joint Attention: What is It and Why is it Important?
Did you know that before a child will begin to talk, they must first master what are known as “pre-linguistic” skills? Pre-linguistic literally means “before language”. They are the set of skills every child learns before they begin using meaningful language. One of the most important pre-linguistic skills is Joint Attention.
What is Joint Attention?
Joint attention occurs when two people share interest in an object or event and there is understanding between the two people that they are both interested in the same object or event. For example, you might shake a rattle near your 8 month old and they turn and look at you as they smile with delight as if to say, “That was fun! Let’s do it again.” Or perhaps your 15 month old sees an airplane flying overhead and points to it as if to say “Isn’t that cool? Do you see it too?” Joint attention usually starts developing between 6 to 9 months of age and is typically very well established by 18 months of age.
A child may initiate joint attention with an adult using:
Eye gaze: The child may look at an object and then back at you, as if to say, “Did you see that?”
Gestures: Showing an item or pointing. Pointing is considered to be the cornerstone of joint attention.
Words: An older child may say, “Hey mom!” or “Look!” when they want you to notice something.
Initiating joint attention as described above is an important skill, but so is attending to others who are alerting the child about an object or event. For example, when you call your child’s name, do they look up to acknowledge you? When you show your child a toy or point to something across the room, do they look at it? Joint attention involves both giving and welcoming attempts to engage with others.
Why is Joint Attention So Important?
This shifting of attention between an object and the other person while sharing the same focus is one of the foundational skills needed to learn language. Kids learn to understand words by listening to the important things other people want to share. If they are not tuning in to others, there is not much opportunity for the child to engage and learn from others. If they are not understanding many words, then they will not be able to say many words either. Research shows that a child’s ability to engage in joint attention at 12 months predicts how quickly they will later learn words. In short, children who are not sharing attention with others are missing out on opportunities for engagement and will be at a disadvantage for learning language skills.
Signs of Difficulty with Joint Attention
What does difficulty with joint attention look like? Below are some examples of red flags in young children that indicate difficulty sharing attention with others:
Inconsistently respond to their name
Inconsistently respond to your words, gestures, or actions, including pointing
Appear to be ignoring others
Play independently for long periods of time without engaging others, such as showing a parent a toy or asking for help with an object
Tune out verbal directions
Adults have to work hard to gain the child’s attention
The child only uses the adult as a means to an end, such as getting something the child wants, instead of showing or sharing with the adult.
These difficulties become even more concerning when the child also shows difficulties with other social-emotional skills, such as sharing eye contact and engaging in a variety of joyful expressions during interactions with others. Difficulties with both joint attention and social interactions can be indicative of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Tips for Improving Joint Attention
What can you do as a parent to establish joint attention skills with your child? There are plenty of activities you can do at home starting from infancy and moving forward!
Play face to face with your child so they have the opportunity to watch your facial expressions and increase their eye contact and facial interactions with you. For younger children still in a bouncy seat or who cannot yet walk, make sure to face them towards you when they are seated on your lap, in a seat, or while playing on the floor.
Be the fun toy! Play toyless games such as peekaboo, tickling, pat-a-cake, and so-big. These sort of activities encourage social interaction without having to compete with a toy for your child’s attention.
Model gestures such as pointing and showing items. This will help your child to learn more non-verbal ways of communicating. Frequency matters! You can incorporate pointing and showing into everyday routines. Did you see the school bus stop outside? Point at it! Did you hear that airplane? Point again! There is the cat! Point again! Do you see this ball? Let me show you. Here is the chalk! Let me show you this too.
Create opportunities for joint attention during play. For example, rolling a ball back and forth or taking turns to blow bubbles. Try dropping a toy into a bucket. Watch your child to see if they respond to the noise with wonder. Give them a turn to drop the items in the bucket. Now it is your turn again. These simple games involving a back and forth reinforce joint attention.
Engage in play with motivating cause and effect. Children must understand that their actions with gestures or words have reactions in order to understand the power or communication. Cause and effect play helps catch and sustain attention and motivate kids to communicate at the level they are ready to (be it gestures, pointing, or words). Some examples of cause and effect toys are musical instruments, light up toys, car ramps, and marble runs.
Join in what your child is already doing! When you are doing what your child can already do and shows interest in, it is much easier for them to join in to play with you.
If you have concerns about your child’s joint attention skills, including concerns about your child’s eye contact, lack of gesturing or pointing, or lack of interest in social games or experiences, contact us!