Last week I discussed the use of gestures in key word signs in the development of early language. In this blog I mention the importance of joint attention.
What is joint attention?
Joint attention is the ability to share a common focus on something with someone else (this includes people, objects, concepts, events, etc). It is a social form of communication that develops in infancy and progresses throughout early childhood. This social communication or behaviour allows two people to share focus on an object for the sole purpose of sharing with each other. Joint attention involves the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention. It is considered to be a critical component for social development, language acquisition, and cognitive development.
When does joint attention develop?
The earliest beginnings of joint attention are seen in the newborn and develop throughout early childhood and is typically well established by 18 months.
Newborn to 8 months
- Eye Gaze - beginning of eye gaze can be seen as early as 4 days old when a baby recognises his/her mother's face.
- Eyes Checking - as a child looks at his or her mother and then shifts his or her gaze to see what she's looking at this is early joint attention through gaze.
- In early joint attention a baby is a passive participant.
- Eye pointing - when newborn uses his/her eyes to look at an object, he/she becomes an initiator in the parent-child relationship rather than just being a passive participant.
8 to 12 months
- Points with finger/gestures - as his/her motor skills develop the child will point to an object to share with his/her parent (i.e., using gestures to develop joint attention and thus early non-verbal communication).
- Line of regard - at this age most children will follow their parent/carer’s line of regard in relation to objects/people at a distance.
12 to 15 months
- Children now follow a line of regard consistently - thus allowing a parent/carer to gain an infant's attention using eye gaze when they bring objects into the child's environment.
- Understanding that pointing is an intentional act.
15 to 18 months
- Children are now able to sustain joint attention. This requires that they shift attention frequently to monitor the other person, such as during social play.
- The child is beginning to be able to draw on another person's attention to objects or events for the purpose of sharing experiences.
What are some of the components of joint attention?
- Attention - The ability to follow another person's eye gaze.
- Emotions - Being able to look at another person's face to get information on how they feel.
- Intentions - when the child and parent or carer are trying to do the same thing and they know they are doing it together.
Why is joint attention so important?
Joint attention is needed for:
- The development of eye contact from infancy throughout early childhood
- The development of attention and imitation skills
- The development of social interaction
- The development of early language - following gestural cues
- The ability to initiate the sharing of knowledge
- Shared attention in social interactions
How do I improve my child's joint attention?
Some ways to increase joint attention include:
- Play or sit directly opposite to your child.
- Position yourself to gain eye contact and lots of smiles.
- Assist focus on your face by using hats, sunglasses, stickers, etc.
- Use cause and effect toys in play.
- Use an animated voice and facial expressions.
- Initiate non-verbal gestures during play.
- Blow bubbles, play peekaboo games to gain your child's attention.
- Play games that involve taking turns, i.e. rolling a ball between each other.
- Develop imitation skills during play in both fine and gross motor games.
- Follow your child's lead and play with their preferred toy or activity.
What should you do when engaging in any activity to gain a child's joint attention?
- Show enjoyment in any activity that you share together.
- Consistently give praise to your child for being involved in activities of joint attention, either by gesture or verbally.
When should I be concerned about my child's difficulties with joint attention?
It is often hard to determine when your child is finding it difficult to share joint attention activities with you.
Some signs are:
- When your child avoids eye contact
- When it is difficult for your child to follow your eye gaze to look at the same thing
- When your child is unable to sustain joint attention during social play
- When your child has difficulty sharing emotional states with another person
- When your child finds it difficult to use direction of gaze or pointing to direct the attention of others to something within their world
What conditions are associated with delays in joint attention?
It is common for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to have difficulty with tasks involving joint attention. We also see that children with developmental delays due to a variety of causes may have some difficulty with joint attention.
At Therapies for Kids, we are determined to offer activities to your child during therapy to encourage the development of joint attention. We will also endeavour to coach you in the necessary skills for you to engage your child in activities which will develop joint attention, leading to improved communication and social skills, which are essential ingredients in a child's development.
I hope that you find the information in the above blog useful. If you have any concerns, please speak to your GP, paediatrician, or therapist.
I hope you stay safe and healthy during this difficult time.