Establishing Joint Attention
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Establishing Joint Attention

  • PDF

Joint attention is a crucial step in language development that helps children pick up words from others in their environment. It is a foundational skill for both communication and social interaction.

Joint attention typically emerges around 9 months, and is well-established by 18 months. Most children learn to establish joint attention naturally by watching others around them and through their own interactions.

What is Joint Attention?

In the simplest terms, joint attention (sometimes referred to as shared attention) is when two people pay attention to the same thing at the same time. Joint attention between the communication partners is gained through gestures, vocalizations, and words.

It is important to note that joint attention and turn taking skills are built during play, and incorporates real items and activities with people. Limiting your young child's screen time will help support increasing these developmental play skills. If you and your child are having difficulty with sharing attention on items and people, there are several different activities to improve joint attention.

Using Eye Contact to Practice Joint Attention

While playing or engaging with your child, we want to find ways to encourage them to look at us in order to establish joint attention. They look at our eyes, watch us look towards an object, and then they follow our eye gaze towards that object.

What if Your Child Doesn’t Make Good Eye Contact?

One thing to try is holding up objects that they’re interested in near your face. It might sound silly, but we want to try to get them to shift their attention to us more than the object itself. So be expressive! You can make a noise or say their name to gain their attention. Once they look, slowly move the object away from your face, provide the label for the object (ex: toy), then bring it back towards your face.

Use Pointing and Hand Modeling to Practice Joint Attention

Similar to that last strategy, we can use pointing. Point to the object you want your child to pay attention to, and label the object: "toy."

You can even place your hand over your child’s and direct their attention and eye gaze towards the object of interest. Gently take your child's hand and place it on the object. Then, label the object (ex: car), make eye contact with your child, and then look back at the car.

Focus on Your Child’s Interests

Another strategy is to engage your child in what's they're already interested or excited about. Sometimes, it might feel challenging to get a child to engage with something that you want them to. But, we may have more success if we meet them where they are. For example, if your child is super interested in the wheels on their airplane toy, bring your face near the airplane, or take a turn flying the plane before handing it back to your child. Make sure to model airplane sounds or other language: “The airplane is flying!”

Joint attention is a building block for your child's social communication skills. It is important to remember that your child's attention will be increased when using and focusing on items, activities, and people they enjoy.

What if My Child is Still Struggling with Joint Attention?

For some populations, joint attention may not be so easy. For children on the autism spectrum, establishing joint attention can be tricky because social communication is impaired. Specifically, using joint attention to form a social reference might be lacking, but we can help support them with some strategies.

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