Welcome to our Two Takes series! We’re taking on hot topics and commonly asked questions from parents with a unique team approach. We’re putting our SLP (Kenzie) and OT (Serena) brains together to bring you two perspectives on topics relevant to your child.
Today, we’re sharing two takes on: joint attention! See how we use our different professional lenses to answer frequently asked questions about joint attention below:
What is joint attention?
Speech: Joint attention is a foundational skill that communication is built upon. It occurs when two different people share eye contact, a laugh, or verbal or nonverbal communication such as pointing or a facial expression. This skill should begin to emerge around 6-9 months, and usually precedes first words.
OT: Joint attention is when two people focus on the same object or event. This skill is an early building block for social interaction and play. Joint attention occurs when you point to a picture in a book or your child shows you a toy. Joint attention is often gained through making eye contact, making a sound or speaking, or using a gesture, like pointing.
Why is joint attention important?
Speech: Joint attention is a crucial skill needed for communication development. Communication itself is an exchange of information between two people. This exchange requires joint attention, otherwise the language is not meaningful. For verbal language to be effective for communication, we need to have a connection in place with the other person via joint attention. During infancy, joint attention often begins during nursing, feeding, or other interactions that take place face-to-face with increased eye contact. At around 6 months, babies begin to attend to familiar objects and people in the environment. As babies transition into the toddler stage, joint attention begins to become involved in play, nonverbal communication (such as gestures and pointing), and eventually verbal communication.
OT: While joint attention sounds fairly simple, it is a crucial step in developing social skills and moving through the developmental stages of play. Before age 3, children are expected to primarily engage in parallel play, where they may share a space while playing but have limited interaction with each other. Between ages 3 and 4, children begin to engage in associative play with more interaction, cooperation, and shared ideas. Children who have difficulty with joint attention may miss out on opportunities to interact with their peers in play situations, and have more difficulty gaining the skills needed to engage in cooperative play. They may also have more difficulty communicating their needs, as they are unsure of how to gain the attention of another person. Joint attention is also an important component of motor planning, as it may affect a child’s ability to imitate or copy others’ actions. In early childhood, children who can’t pay attention to something along with their peers may be less likely to copy what they see, which can further impact motor planning development.
How do speech and occupational therapy address joint attention?
Speech: During a speech therapy session, joint attention can be supported by involving highly preferred toys, using hand-over-hand teaching, and using lots of gestures and sound effects. Eye contact is initially encouraged by rewarding eye contact and teaching the child to follow a pointed finger. Once joint attention is established, joint engagement can be encouraged through shared interaction with a favorite toy or exciting activity, such as popping bubbles. Joint engagement is the next step after joint attention, during which a child engages with an adult in an activity (taking turns, looking and pointing, etc) for a period of time.
OT: In occupational therapy, joint attention is built through engagement in meaningful and play activities. For many activities, the child has to attend to what the therapist is doing to be able to copy their actions. Unsuccessful attempts at copying are still praised to reinforce joint attention.
How can I support my child in developing joint attention?
A few ways to practice this skills are:
- Establish eye contact by tapping your child’s nose and then your own nose, adding in a silly sound, such as “Boop, boop!” You can then reward your child for looking and making eye contact by making a silly face or sound.
- Point to a favorite toy and cue your child by saying, “Look!” When your child looks at the toy, reward the action of looking by giving the child the toy.
- Use a windup or popup toy that has an exciting light up or movement component to it. Tell your child “look!” or “ooooh!” and as soon as they make eye contact or look at the toy you are pointing too, turn the toy on or allow it to pop open or light up.
- Use a book that your child likes, and help them practice initiating joint attention by pointing to pictures and making eye contact or making sounds that go with the pictures, followed by eye contact.
Don’t be discouraged if this skill takes time to learn, and remember to make it silly, fun, and motivating to start!
OT: Many play activities provide an opportunity to work on joint attention! Some examples include:
- Blowing and popping bubbles together
- Sit on the ground and roll a ball back and forth, or for older children, play catch.
- Take turns during shared activities, such as adding a new piece to Mr. Potato head or a piece to a puzzle.
- Play silent Simon Says, during which your child has to copy your body movements. To make this easier, have your child start as Simon and copy what their body is doing.
- Sing songs with actions/dance moves that your child can imitate, such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”
When you are starting to work on joint attention skills, start small and use toys and games that you know are motivating for your child. As the skill develops, gradually increase the amount of engagement and time that the child is engaged to continue to build their skills! When your child has mastered joint attention in one activity, introduce a new activity for them to generalize the skill to!