What is Joint Attention?
Joint attention is an essential skill that is necessary for speech, language and pragmatic (social) development. It facilitates the sharing of intention, thoughts, memories, observations and experiences with others. Joint attention is the sharing of experience between two people. In early intervention terms, this involves a child and a partner. This might be a parent, a sibling, a therapist or another caregiver.
How does it develop?
Development of joint attention skills occurs from infancy. The beginnings of joint attention may include face to face contact during feeding or nursing. As children grow they may point at objects and people to share their interests. They may seek objects and bring them to show others. Children will learn how to coordinate their focus between objects and people. Joint attention skills also manifest in sharing simple games and books with others. Joint attention generally begins to emerge at around 9 -12 months of age and by approximately three years of age; a child should be able to engage in joint attention activities.
Why is joint attention important?
It’s important to remember when considering joint attention, that communication begins long before first words are spoken. Joint attention is an essential skill that is necessary for speech, language and pragmatic (social) development. It facilitates the sharing of intention, thoughts, memories, observations and experiences with others.
Requesting vs. Joint attention
It is also important to distinguish between requesting and joint attention. Requesting occurs when a child points or reaches for something he/she wants. Usually the child will shift their gaze from the parent to the object. The purpose is ‘non-social’. Joint attention occurs when a child points to something, with the purpose to be social – to share, to show, to experience.
Responding and Initiating
Joint attention can occur as a result of a child’s response to another person’s request for joint attention. For example: A parent points to the sky at the plane and says, “Look!” The child responds by looking up and following the parent’s finger. By approx 12-14 months, a child will begin to shift focus between the object and the partner to make sure they are still attending to the object.
Joint attention can also occur when a child initiates joint attention. For example: A child sees a dog in the park. He/She points or gestures towards to dog. They will also gaze in the direction of the dog. As children get older, they may add vocalisations or a word. The child is seeking to have the parent look at the dog too.
It is easier for a child to respond to another person’s bid to engage them in joint attention. Initiating joint attention may indicate that a child is socially motivated. Children with autism can experience difficulty with engaging in joint attention activities.
What can you do?
If you are working with a speech pathologist, they will be able to give you the best advice specific to your child. Skills and strategies may also depend on the age of your child. Here are a few basic ideas to facilitate joint attention experiences with your child.
Join in play and imitate:
- Watch what your child is interested in and quietly join in. Play is likely to last longer if your child is doing something they are interested in.
- Get on the same level as your child.
- Play as your child does.
- You can imitate your child’s gestures, sounds and words.
- Imitating what your child can do can make it easier for he/she to join in play with you. This gives you a chance to build play and turn taking interactions. With time, your child may begin to imitate you more.
- Add extra language and comment on things that are of interest to your child.
- Allow for creativity when your child imitates you!
- Get on your child’s level.
- Encourage face to face interactions.
- Point to a toy that your child likes and say “look!” When he/she looks at it, play with the toy or give it to him/her.
- When your child becomes interested in books, point to a picture and say, “look!” You can help your child point to pictures. By sharing awareness and interest in the same picture or book you are achieving joint attention.
- Other children may enjoy using a torch (flashlight) in a darkened room. You can “look” at different pictures or objects in the room.
- When your child looks at something, you can add extra language. Remember to use simple, but grammatical sentences. You can put emphasis on key words.
It’s important to remember that if you have concerns regarding your child’s speech, language or play development, you should seek a consult with a speech pathologist. Early intervention is the best option.
This article was written by our speech pathologist Jenna Butterworth who is a Speech Pathology Australia member.
If you have questions about Early Language Development: Joint Attention or for results focused speech therapy, contact your local doctor who will arrange for you to see a speech pathologist in Sydney.