Developing Joint Attention
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Developing Joint Attention

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Joint attention skills what are they and how can we facilitate those?

Most of us want to make friends, connect with others and bond with a friend or be part of a community. To do so we need to develop an important social skill which is: initiating, responding to, and maintaining ‘shared/joint attention’ with another. When we can do this, we are able to focus on the same thing with another person or a group of people: music, hobbies, sport, art, books, toys, games or memories: remember when we did x y z…

Many children who struggle with speech and language development are not able to share or hold attention with another person very easily. My latest blog is all about what we can do to help our children develop Joint Attention.

So to re-cap, joint or shared attention happens when one person gets the other’s attention by either words, or gestures like pointing to something and saying ‘OMG look over there!’ – both people look at that same thing.

What does it take to have or develop this skill?

We need to first of all find something of interest that captivates our own attention. This part is usually not difficult for most people or children.

Then, crucially, we need to direct our focus away from what we find interesting, for long enough to get another person’s attention onto the same topic. This could be just seconds or it could be longer if we are very determined and good at embracing others into our experience. But if we are not then it must not take longer than seconds!

Let me give an example: if someone is in the room with me whilst I see something strange out the window, I would take that second to draw their attention to it. However, I might not be bothered to run upstairs and find someone only to show them something odd outside in the road. If I am very bored, I might do! But as I am rarely bored it is unlikely. So, unless someone else is right here with me, they are not going to be part of that particular experience, I would not share it.

Back to our child: if we make it difficult for a child who is not naturally inclined to share an interest then it is not going to happen. We must be ready, and right there for our child to have that fleeting second to look at us before returning to their hobby/interest.

This skill ‘to share a moment’ tends to develop around 12 months of age and starts with a child pointing to things. Prior to that, our child might give us something or come to show us a thing. Joint attention underpins language skills and is strong predictors of later language development (Law et al, 2017).

What are the signs that my child is struggling with Joint Attention?

  • Tunes out or does not respond when I call their name
  • Cannot follow my suggestions for games or toys/play activities
  • Does not point to anything of interest, like a truck passing by, or an aeroplane in the sky
  • Ignores or does not respond to what I say, does not follow instructions, only when he/she wants to

What can I do to help with this?

Here are some ideas you can follow in no particular order – see which one sticks:

  1. Get down to your child’s eye/face level, we call it ‘face to face’. It does not require your child to make eye contact with you but they might just do so more easily if you are ‘just there’ and don’t have to crook their neck to look up at you. When reading a book with your child, instead of sitting behind try sitting opposite him/her.
  2. Mirror play – making funny faces together in a mirror can be fun.
  3. COPY your child: top tip!! Imitate your child’s vocalisations and actions. Even if these are repetitive, just enjoy the ride.
  4. Follow your child and let your child take the lead in the play activity. What does that look like? The adult has no agenda, does not want to teach, to ask questions (see point number 9) does not want to direct or show the child how to ‘do it better/differently’ – instead accept that the child is the boss when it comes to their play and take their lead in how a toy should be played with.
  5. Hold up objects to your face or at eye level so that your child can see your face and the item at the same time.
  6. Be the ‘funniest thing’ in the room; be hugely entertaining, watchable and offer the ‘irresistible invitation’ to look at you or play with you.
  7. Offer PEOPLE TOYS (any toy where another person is needed to have fun) so: wind-up toys, bubbles, anything that needs opening or holding or doing which is tricky for the child to do alone. I always try and hide the buttons that make something ‘go’ so that my child needs to come back to me for ‘more/again’.
  8. Do PEOPLE GAMES – as above really but games that do not need a toy, that need another person to have fun: being swung round, row row the boat, being pushed on a swing etc.
  9. REDUCE ASKING QUESTIONS – this is my favourite top tip!!! Instead of asking lots of questions try and make simple statements/comments on what is happening so there is absolutely no pressure on your child to ‘perform’. Equally, silence is actually golden sometimes! An odd bit of advice from a speech therapist? Try sitting with your child, next to them or opposite and just don’t talk but simply BE… yes easier said than done, I do know this. Turn off your phone (OMG did I just say that!?) yes, please turn it off and just be with your child for a little while, just like a comfy buddy who is just enjoying their company with no agenda. You might be very surprised how your child suddenly seeks you out!

I will write about more ideas on this in my next blog so look out for more play ideas to encourage Joint Attention.

Most important, try and have fun with your child. Think about what is fun for her or him. And make it EASY for your child, remember unless you are ‘right there’ it might not happen so easily.

Happy New Year!

If you need help with your child, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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