What is Joint Attention?

joint attention

Joint attention is an early developing social-communicative skill in which two people share a common focus on an object or event. Two people (often a young child and an adult) use gestures (such as pointing) and eye gaze to reference one thing. Joint attention is often severely limited in children on the autism spectrum as well as children with sensory integration difficulties.

Example of joint attention:

A child is sitting in his parent’s lap and they are both looking at the flowers. The parent points to a butterfly and says “Look”.  When the child matches the parent’s gaze the parent labels the animal, “butterfly”. 

Typical development

Joint attention develops in phases. For the first six months, the goal is for the infant to look at objects and events in the environment in tandem with the mother. The infant learns to attend to the mother’s prompts, such as “Oh, look” and follows her gaze or gesture.

By six months the baby begins to reach for or point to objects with a whole hand.

Around eight months the baby develops an intent to communicate by reaching or pointing to the object then shifting his gaze back to the mother to verify she received his message.

Between eight and twelve months baby learns to point and vocalize to talk about objects in the environment.

Lastly, around twelve months the mother attempts to elicit verbalizations from the child by asking questions rather than providing the labels of objects or events. The child begins to name and talk about objects in the environment in dialogue with the caregiver.

Why is joint attention important?

Joint attention plays a critical role in speech and language development.  When a caregiver and child share a common experience, an opportunity for learning occurs. It is within this context that infants develop gestural, vocal and verbal signals. The caregiver can talk about the object and the child is more receptive to receiving the information. Without joint attention, there is frequently a miscommunication and the child cannot grasp the information the caregiver presents or the caregiver is not able to speak to the child’s understanding. 

You may be concerned if:

  • Does not look at objects of interest, such as a rattle, by 3 months old
  • Does not respond to their name by 6 months old
  • Does not reach for objects by 8 months old
  • Does not respond to “no”, show objects or look at parent for an object by 12 months.

*If you have concerns about your child’s ability to attend to your voice, consult your pediatrician or ask a speech therapist.

Further developing skills

An opportunity for learning develops once joint attention has been established. The child’s attention span and current developmental level, however, must be considered. A six month old’s attention span may be for a few seconds. A toddler can maintain attention longer to learn labels, imitate actions and engage in short back and forth play. An older child can attend to a whole story and remain focused on one topic of conversation across several communication exchanges. 

Activities to establish joint attention

  • Copy your child. Copy how he is playing. If he is stacking blocks, you stack blocks. If he is lining up cars, you line up cars. Play along quietly beside and imitate actions. Gradually draw more attention to what you’re doing. See if he starts paying attention and reinforce him with a hi-five, verbal praise.
  • Identifying reinforcers. Find something motivating to your child. What does he like? Raisins or another snack food? Toys that light up? Cars? Find the toy that is motivating to him by holding up two different toys, show him what each does, and see which one he reaches for. Keep going with more toys and items until you get a good idea of what he likes. Then hold out two toys, give him the one he reaches for, and let him play with it for a moment. This toy will be used as a reinforcer for attending to you and the toy. 
  • Take out the preferred toy and use it. If he seems interested and moves closer to you and the object, say “You see my ___” and then give it to him. This is reinforcing his coming closer to you, a first step of joint attention. Then give him the toy for a moment, then say “my turn” and take it and walk a few feet away. Once he comes close, again you say “You see my __” and give it to him again. Keep doing this until he loses interest, then switch to a different reinforcer.  
  • Tickling can be a fun joint attention activity. Tickle then walk a few feet away. When he comes toward you, tickle him again until he is smiling, then walk a few feet away again. 
  • Gradually increase level of engagement to include:  
    • Looking directly at the object or mom/dad
    • Reaching for objects
    • Point at the object
    • Pointing at the object and looking at you
  • Gradually increase time of engagement: 
    • Look at the object together before just giving to him.
    • Say “Look at this” and point to something on the object, then give to the child.
    • Add more seconds with “Wow, look at this!” before giving it 
  • We gradually increase joint attention activities: from preferred to not yet preferred. Shared book reading may be next
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