What is Joint Attention?
From birth, parents respond to their infant’s coos, smiles, and movements as though they are meaningful communicative acts, and may smile, vocalize, or otherwise imitate their infant’s actions. These types of exchanges, sometimes called “proto-conversations,” are important for the infant’s developing emotional and social competence, including bonding and attachment, as well as early understanding of turn-taking and meaningful communication.
Beginning around six months, as infants become more mobile and start to explore the world around them, the focus of their attention shifts to the objects in their environment. Soon after that, they begin to coordinate attention between caregivers and objects in a meaningful way by looking, for example, back and forth between the caregiver and the object. This kind of shared focus between a child, a caregiver, and an object or event is known as joint attention. ¹
The Importance of Joint Attention
Infants’ ability to engage in joint attention is an important developmental milestone. Joint attention serves as a foundation for developing communicative competence and is one basis for the development of early social and cognitive skills.
For both hearing and deaf children, joint attention interactions are also crucial for language development. Specifically, the language children hear and see during this particular type of interaction with their caregivers is strongly linked to early vocabulary development. When caregivers share attention with their infants, and comment on the object or event on which the infant is focusing, infants acquire new words more easily and efficiently than if the caregiver simply attempts to redirect the child’s attention. Joint attention interactions that focus specifically on shared book reading have also been linked to later language development and reading ability.¹
How to Develop This Skill (Listening & Spoken Language)
- Tell your child, “Look at me,” then tap his/her face and then your face. After you have given this verbal cue, give your child time to respond.
- Point to a toy that your child likes and say, “look.” Gently turn his/her head toward the toy. When he/she looks at it, play with the toy or give it to him/her.
- Hold up a toy or favorite item and say, “look.” Your child should look at you and then the object. Reward by giving the toy to your child.
- Blow bubbles and say, “look.” Point as your child traces the bubbles. Blow more bubbles when he/she looks at you, repeat the word “look,” and point.
- Blow up a balloon, but don’t tie it or let it go. Say, “look,” and release it when your child looks.
- When your child becomes interested in books, point to a picture and say, “look.” Help your child point to pictures. The goal is for your child to look at you and then the picture. By sharing awareness and interest in the same picture or book you are achieving joint attention.
- When another family member comes into the room, point and say, “look.” Reward your child for looking with a physical activity, such as tickling or patting.
Your child may need more time to understand what turning his/her head means, so don’t be discouraged if this skill is slow for him/her to learn.²
How to Develop This Skill (ASL)
- Placing signs into the child’s current focus of attention;
- Using attention-getting signals (tapping the child, waving towards the child) to establish eye contact before signing;
- Physically setting up the interaction so that both the parent and the objects can be seen with minimal shifting (for example, sitting across from the child);
- Waiting for spontaneous looks from the child before signing;
- Providing relevant signs when the child spontaneously looks up;
- Giving the child time to explore objects before eliciting attention; and
- Using specific signs such as LOOK, along with a pleasant, positive manner, to prompt the child that linguistic input is forthcoming.¹
¹Visual Language and Visual Learning Science of Learning Center. (2012, June). Eye Gaze and Joint Attention (Research Brief No. 5). Washington, DC: Amy M. Lieberman
²Mawhinney, L. & McTeague, M.S. (2004). Joint Attention. Early Language Development. Super Duper Publications.