Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone whose eyes were fixated on the TV? Your conversation probably didn’t get very far.
What if that person wanted you to see / join in what they were watching on TV, so they constantly shifted their eye gaze between you and the TV? They probably would have been able to take in more of what you were saying then. This is known as 'joint attention'.
It’s the same with children. Joint attention is when a child divides their attention between an object and another person. For example, if your child looks at their toy bear, looks up at you, as if to say “look!” and then looks back at their toy bear.
When does joint attention develop?
Children typically start to develop joint attention at the age of 9 months, and continue to do so until mastering the skill at the age of about 18 months.
Why is joint attention so important?
This shared attention and engagement serves as a foundation for learning - otherwise, learning doesn’t happen. Joint attention must be mastered for children to develop good communication, cognitive and social skills. On the other hand, children who have difficulty with joint attention will usually struggle with many areas of development.
Here are some important things to remember:
In children's development, non-verbal communication skills develop before verbal communication skills. Since joint attention is a non-verbal communication skill, it must be worked on before working on verbal communication skills in therapy.
Below are 5 of my favorite tricks for improving your child’s joint attention:
1. Start with what your child is interested in
For example, your child will be more keen to interact with you when you show interest in the toy car that they are interested in - rather than the alphabet puzzle which you keep asking them to do.
2. Guide your child’s eyes
For example, if your child is interested in a toy, bring this toy slowly up to your eyes, and then slowly put it back down. This will help guide your child about where to look. Since you are starting with the toy that they are interested in, their eye gaze will likely follow your hand movements.
3. Go with the pace your child is setting
For example, if your child is making car sounds while they play with a car toy, you can make car sounds too! Try not to break the momentum by placing demands on your child (e.g. "say car! say it!").
4. Use environmental sounds to draw your child in
For example, your child might enjoy it when you make some animal sounds as you both play with the animal toys together.
5. Remember the aim of your interaction
The aim is to achieve shared attention and engagement - not to force your child to say everything you want them to say. The greater the demands you put on them, the less motivation they will have to engage with you.
I hope you find these tips helpful when working on your child's joint attention.
The Expat Speechie
Chiman Estephan MSLP, MSPA, CPSP, ACAS
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