What is Joint Attention?

By Hayley Tippets

While playing with a baby, you press the button on a pop-up box, the baby looks at the box with delight, giggles and looks back at you, such as to suggest, “that was exciting, do that again!”. This look by the baby from the pop-up box to the adult, to gain the adult’s attention on the same object, is known as joint attention or shared attention. Joint attention is when two people co-ordinate their focus of attention to the same thing (either a person, object, event, etc.). It is a skill that begins to develop very early in life, as early as infancy. Joint attention is a communication skill that involves gaining a person’s attention, maintaining that attention, as well as shifting it. It can be gained in different forms, either by the use of gesture (pointing), eye gaze, sounds or words. Joint attention is an essential building block to learning language.

Why is joint attention important?

Children learn how to communicate from their daily interactions with others. Increased opportunities for interactions allow for children to build their communication skills. For children to be able to interact with others, they need to develop their joint attention skills. This allows them to be able to share their attention between the person and the object at the same time.

Children build their receptive and expressive language from listening to adults talk about the object that the child is playing with. This allows the child to match the words that the adult is using to the object and therefore begin to form their receptive and expressive vocabulary. Joint attention also allows for children to work on their conversational turn-taking skills, such as either responding or initiating an interaction, by pointing or saying “look over there” and waiting for the adult’s response. Joint attention also allows for children to learn how to interact with a toy in new ways through observing adults and their way of play, as well as how to have fun while playing with both the toy and the adult at the same time.

Strategies to help you improve your child’s joint attention skills.

  • During play, connect with your child by making sure you are at their eye-level, maintaining eye-contact and using sounds and words and gestures like pointing.
  • Bringing the object to your face, this allows for the child to engage with both the object as well as with you.
  • To practice pointing, try using hand-over-hand teaching.
  • Follow your child’s lead, if they show interest in an object, add a comment, and use a visual cue such as pointing.
  • Try following your child’s lead, rather than directing your child’s play, observe them, and follow their actions while at the same time commenting on those actions so as to provide them with the language, make sure to be playful while interacting, as this will encourage the interaction between your child, the toy and you!

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