Joint attention and your child’s language development.

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

Every parent is super excited when their child hits a new milestone; that first social smile, the emergence of the coos and the babbles, when your child first sits, crawls, begins cruising and the many other firsts 😊

Chief of these firsts is when your child utters their first word (dada, ma, papa, bye, etc.), there is a lot of excitement around the language milestone possibly because, with it comes the gift of expression and some tangibility to the two way interaction you enjoy with your child.

However, before this amazing “big first” happens, there are critical dots that connects your child’s experiences and emotions to birth their first words. According to research, your child’s ability to pay attention to people and objects in his or her environment is fundamental to language development.


Your child’s ability to take notice of you, enjoy your interaction with him and respond to you will determine how much language your child will pick up and at what rate. One way your child is expected to demonstrate interest in people and seek interaction that will enhance language development is by developing joint attention.


During the first couple of months, babies pay attention to people when they are face-to-face with them. Between five to six months, babies start paying attention to objects in their environment, by 18 months, joint attention should be established in your child.


As you join your baby while she is exploring and playing with objects, your child learns to stay with you through several short cycles of exchanges. This back and forth exchange with your child is called joint engagement. For example, it is common to see babies engage in “conversational” cooing with an attending adult over several exchanges. It is also common to see babies thrust their hands in play or kick their feet at an adult while lying on their back during play, to indicate they want the activity to continue.


When your child first begins to develop joint attention, her focus may be more object focused, your child enjoys interacting with the objects you present but may not look at you or necessarily interact for long. As she gets older, the focus shifts to you with your child making more eye contact and starts using gestures such as pointing. When this skill is consolidated in your child, your child can share her attention between you and an object, checking to see if you are observing and interacting with what she is enjoying.


Typically, your child’s joint attention skills should progress from jointly sharing a play item with you, to making eye contact, shifting their gaze from the play item to occasionally make eye contact with you when playing, point at something they find interesting and look in the direction you point to. This ability of your child to socially connect and share their focus with you, understand your attempt to connect with him and responding to your attempt by following your focus is what is called joint attention.


SKILLS YOUR CHILD NEEDS FOR JOINT ATTENTION

Several skills are important for joint attention (Woods & Wetherby, 2008, p. 181). These skills make it possible for your child to get his needs met, interact with others and build meaningful relationships. Examples include:


• Visually orienting and attending to a social partner

• Shifting their gaze between people and objects (called the 3-point gaze)

• Intentionally sharing emotional states with another person

• Following the gaze and point of another person

• Being able to draw another person’s attention to objects or events for the purpose of sharing experiences. This is different from pointing to get their needs met, for instance if the only pointing your child does is to point your attention to an item they can’t reach so you could help them, that does not qualify for joint attention.

WHY IS JOINT ATTENTION IMPORTANT?

The more awareness your child demonstrates in relation to people and objects around him, the better he can learn from the actions of others. The more responsive your child is to you, other adults that interact with him and objects (exploring objects appropriately), the greater the opportunities for these adults to expand his learning through language and social interactional activities.


Children with delays in joint attention skills that persist through the age of 2 years may experience language delays and could be at risk for autism spectrum disorders. If you have concerns about your child’s joint attention skills or other developmental milestones, click here to schedule a consultation with an expert today.

References

1. Adamson, L. B., Deckner, D. F., & Bakeman, R. (2010). Early interests and joint engagement in typical development, autism, and Down syndrome. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 40(6), 665–676. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-009-0914-1

2. http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Encouraging-Joint-Engagement-with-Children-with-AS.aspx

3. Woods, J. J., & Wetherby, A. M. (2008). Early identification of and intervention for infants and toddlers who are at risk for autism spectrum disorder. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, vol. 34, p. 180-193.

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