Today, I’m discussing a crucial step in language development that children need to establish in order to pick up words from others in their environment. This is called Joint Attention, and it happens when two people are interested in the same object and they BOTH know the other is interested too.

How do Children Learn Joint Attention?

Joint attention typically emerges around 9 months, and is well-established by 18 months. Most children learn to establish joint attention naturally by watching others around them and through their own interactions. For some populations, it might not be so easy. For children on the autism spectrum, establishing joint attention can be tricky because social communication is impaired. Specifically, using joint attention to form a social reference might be lacking, but we can help support them with some strategies.

Best Circumstances to Learn Joint Attention

Research has shown that young children learn best from people that are the most important to them - their parents and caregivers! The next thing we know is that young children learn better in a natural environment, like their home, whereas older children learn better with more structure.

Using Eye Contact to Practice Joint Attention

While playing or engaging with your child, we want to find ways to encourage them to look at us in order to establish joint attention. They look at our eyes, watch us look towards an object, and then they follow our eye gaze towards that object.

What if Your Child Doesn’t Make Good Eye Contact?

One thing to try is holding up objects that they’re interested in near your face. It might sound silly, but we want to try to get them to shift their attention to us more than the object itself. So be expressive! You can make a noise or say their name to gain their attention. Once they look, slowly move the object away from your face, provide the label for the object (ex: toy), then bring it back towards your face.

Use Pointing to Practice Joint Attention

Similar to that last strategy, we can use pointing. Point to the object you want your child to pay attention to. You can even place your hand over your child’s to help them physically help the child point to the object.

Focus on Your Child’s Interests

Another strategy is to engage in what your child is interested in or excited about. Sometimes, it might feel challenging to get a child to engage with something that you want them to. But, we might have more success if we meet them where they are. For example, if your child is super interested in the wheels on their airplane toy, bring your face near the airplane, or take a turn flying it before handing the airplane back. Model airplane sounds or other language “The airplane is flying!”

In Summary

Joint attention is important for all kids, and these tips can help you practice this skill during playtime or any other daily activity. Check out the Expressable blog for other helpful tips and exercises to help your child.