Joint Attention: What is it, and How can we Help our Children Develop it?
Joint attention is a topic that often comes up as a young child enters into speech therapy. But what is it and what does it look like? Joint attention is the ability to share a common focus, interest, or experience with another person. Joint attention can be a baby smiling in response to her parent’s smiles and silly faces, or a child laughing from being tickled and moving closer to receive more tickles. Joint attention can also be shared between individuals with a shared object; for example, when a child shows a parent his favorite toy in order to share his enjoyment. Joint attention is a foundational skill for social, cognitive, and language development and typically emerges around 9 months of age and is well established by 18 months. Joint attention is often targeted in speech therapy prior to expecting children to speak or follow explicit commands. Studies have shown us that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are more likely to have difficulty cultivating the skill of joint attention independently and benefit from therapeutic supports as they develop.
Below are ways we can help support your children in developing the skill of joint attention:
1. Follow your child’s interests
The first step in joint attention is genuine interest. Find the toys, activities, or actions that your child naturally gravitates towards. Whether this is alphabet letters, light-up toys, Curious George, or spinning around in circles, finding something your child is genuinely interested in is a great starting point.
2. Do and say what your child does and says
Once you have found something your child is naturally interested in, try to share that experience with him. If your child is captivated by the way his favorite sensory toy feels on his skin, find a similar or identical sensory toy that you can also feel and explore. Meet your child on his level and mirror his actions and verbalizations. If you are playing with a toy in a way that your child is already able to, they are more likely to join in the play activity and open up opportunities for turn-taking.
3. Comment rather than interrogate
Now that you are both interacting with a similar object, activity, or experience, begin to comment on that focus rather than drill your child with questions. Say, “This feels squishy! I like the colors of this toy! I see green, blue, and purple” rather than “What does it feel like? What color is it?” Depending on the level of language your child is using and understanding, you may want to simplify your verbal messages. For example, “Squish, squish, squish! Green, Blue, Purple! I like it!” Commenting is a wonderful way to model appropriate language for your child. It also encourages your child to bring his awareness onto you and what you are doing. In this way, you are gently bringing him out of his own personal bubble of singular play and expanding him into parallel play (playing side by side).
4. Focus on play and turn-taking
Select a highly preferred toy and begin interacting with it in an environment with few distractions. You want yourself and this toy/activity to be the most interesting things in the room. Alternatively, join your child when you see they are intently interacting with a toy or experience. Allow your child to play with the toy for a few minutes as you gently comment on what your child is doing. Then, say “my turn!” and bring the toy into your possession and play with it in a similar way your child was. Start with your turn being much shorter than your child’s, even 5-20 seconds. Then say “your turn,” and return the toy to your child’s hands. Over time, your turns may become longer as your child tolerates and learns that the toy is always returned to him. This activity helps your child’s attention shift from himself, onto you and what you are doing, and then back onto himself (the foundation of joint attention).
5. Use gestures and pointing
Point to objects as you talk about them and encounter them with your child. Use the word “look!” to cue your child’s attention. Some children benefit from the pointing finger starting closer to the child’s face and then move it towards the object to help with visual tracking. Encourage your child to point at things that interest him. Provide occasional hand-over-hand guidance as your child develops the skill of pointing. Pointing is a foundational skill for commenting, as it is bringing something to the attention of your conversation partner.
6. Initiate and wait
Give your child the chance to respond to your invitations to play and interact. Some children require increased time to process input and benefit from extended wait time. When taking turns with a preferred toy, keep the toy on your lap once it is your child’s turn. Look at them expectantly as the toy sits on your lap. Give the child time to process what step typically comes next. Provide them a point prompt, verbal prompt (i.e., “What’s next?” “Who’s turn?”), or physical cue (i.e., gently placing your child’s hand on the toy) if your child does not respond after approximately 20 seconds of wait time. This wait time encourages them to continue turn-taking.
Finally, it is important to both: (i) give your child frequent bids for attention, and, (ii) respond to your child’s bids for attention. Give your child plenty of opportunities to share in joint attention by pointing, saying “look!”, and bringing his attention to something you think he will be motivated by. When your child displays bids for attention such as pointing to something, bringing your attention to something in a socially acceptable way, or participating in a play activity with you, be sure to praise his attempts and reciprocate his bids. The core principle of joint attention is to teach our children that interacting with those around us is a beneficial and pleasurable experience. Try to make this time as fun and engaging as possible for both of you.
Kourassanis-Velasquez, J., & Jones, E. A. (2018). Increasing Joint Attention in Children with Autism and Their Peers. Behavior analysis in practice, 12(1), 78–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-018-0228-x