What is joint attention?
Joint attention is a behaviour in which two people focus on an object or event, for the purpose of interacting with each other. It is a form of early social and communicative behaviour.
Joint attention involves sharing a common focus on something (such as other people, objects, a concept, or an event) with someone else. It requires the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention. For example, a parent and child may both look at a toy they’re playing with or observe a train passing by. Joint attention (also known as ‘shared attention’) may be gained by using eye contact, gestures (eg pointing using the index finger) and/or vocalisations, including spoken words (eg “look over there”).
Early joint attention skills may include a child reaching out to be picked up by an adult or looking at the same page of a book with another person. Further developed skills may include focusing on a game or requesting items, such as a favourite toy or food.
There are two ways joint attention can occur:
1. Initiating joint attention
In this case, the child initiates the social interaction. For example, the child may point to a toy, and gaze at their parent to get them to look at it, too. Older children may use vocalisations to gain attention (eg “look here mum”). Initiating joint attention could indicate that a child is socially motivated.
2. Responding to joint attention
In this scenario, the child responds to someone else’s efforts to gain joint attention. For example, a parent points to a ball and says, “look at the ball!”. The child responds by following the parent’s gaze and gesture (eg pointing using the index finger) to look at the ball. Responding to, is easier than initiating, joint attention.
Why is joint attention important?
Being able to establish joint attention is vital for developing social-communication and cognitive skills. In typically developing children, joint attention skills start to develop soon after birth and by the age of three, children are usually competent at gaining and maintaining joint attention from adults and peers.
Without joint attention skills, it could be difficult for children to interact and develop relationships with their caregivers and peers. Joint attention helps develop important social skills such as bonding and seeing another’s point of view.
Joint attention and autism
Children with autism may have difficulties with joint attention, as they may find it difficult to interact while paying attention to an object and a person.
This could result in missed opportunities to interact and communicate with others. Also, it may make it difficult for a person with autism to get their wants and needs met.
The skills needed for joint attention include:
- Orienting and attending to a social partner (that is, the person you are interacting with)
- Shifting of gaze between people and objects
- 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.
How to encourage joint attention
There are many ways parents and caregivers can help their kids develop joint attention skills, such as:
- Focus on faces and developing eye contact – encourage your child to look at you. It’s considered socially appropriate to look at someone who is talking to you and faces provide a lot of social cues. Making eye contact can be especially difficult for children with autism, so discuss with your therapist whether this is an appropriate goal.
- Play and practise turn-taking – this helps to develop joint attention in a natural, relaxed setting. Start with short sessions and gradually increase the time.
- Complete something together, such as a puzzle or craft activity like weaving.
- Encourage your child to shift their attention from what they are playing with to what you have.
- Use an animated tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions to help establish joint attention.
- Use items that your child most enjoys playing with to engage their interest.
- Bubble blowing is a great activity for working on joint attention and communication skill development.
- Practice joint attention as part of your daily routine, during tasks such as brushing teeth or at bath and mealtimes.
- Follow your child’s lead – a 2014 study published in journal Autism found that when parents were responsive during interactions, their children with ASD tended to initiate joint engagement with them. This involved allowing the child to choose the activity, responding to the child’s messages, not taking over the interaction, and keeping play positive and fun. When your child shows interest in an object, mimic their interest. Get involved in the activity by making enthusiastic comments and copying your child’s actions.
- Praise your child for initiating or responding to joint attention attempts. Be explicit about why you’re giving praise. For example, say, “Great job chasing the bubble and popping it!”
Some other ways to help your child develop joint attention skills
1. Teach them to look back and forth between you and an object
A good time to do this is when anything unexpected or surprising happens during your day, such as the doorbell ringing or a block tower you’ve built toppling over. When this happens, look at your child with exaggerated surprise (eg open your mouth wide and raise your eyebrows) and respond with an enthusiastic “Wow!” or “Uh‐oh. Then, watch for your child’s response. If they look at you, reward them by saying, “Good looking!” If they don’t, try again next time.
You may like to organise play activities that create surprise events to give you opportunities to practise.
2. Play a game of hide and seek
This helps teach your child to follow your eye gaze, point and/or head turn. Start by collecting some of your child’s favourite toys or objects, then place them around the room. Start the game when the child wants one of the objects you’ve hidden. When that happens, shrug your shoulders and ask, “Where is it?” Then point to the object, saying, “There it is!” Once your child is consistently following your pointing, switch to turning your head in the object’s direction. Progress to just shifting your gaze.
When beginning with this activity, start by placing the objects close to your child and so they are partially visible.
3. Choose play activities that promote joint attention, such as:
- Rolling a ball or car or tossing a bean bag back and forth
- Rolling objects back and forth inside a cardboard tray or box
- Hanging a ball on flexible string and batting it back and forth
- Using straws (or your mouths) to blow a feather or ping pong ball to each other
- Playing a keyboard together
- Singing songs with actions together, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”
- Holding hands and dancing to your child’s favourite song
- Holding a sheet or blanket with your child and rocking a baby doll or stuffed animal
- Playing tug of war with stretchy material.
If your child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or is having difficulties with social-communication skills, they may require support with establishing joint attention skills. Therapy supports for children with developmental delays may focus on building joint attention skills.
For example, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) may facilitate joint attention responses by using prompting, modelling, and other reinforcement strategies. In occupational therapy, joint attention is focused on the therapeutic activity, such as a handwriting task or game. In speech-language pathology, the child and therapist may be focusing on the same book page or letter sound.
At Growing Early Minds, our dedicated team of allied health and behaviour support therapists are well equipped to support the development of joint attention skills. They have experience working with children with autism, developmental delay, complex needs and the effects of trauma.