Building foundations for speaking…the importance of joint attention

When a child isn’t talking, our focus is understandably drawn to the lack of speech…however, it is important that some pre-verbal skills, i.e. those that form the foundations for speech, are in place.
One of these is joint attention. 

So what is joint attention? Well it’s where two people share the same focus of attention. Take for example, a toddler sees a caterpillar on the ground.

He wants to share this exciting discovery with his Dad, so he looks up to see if Dad is looking. Now if Dad is looking elsewhere, his first job is to gets Dad’s attention, which could be through a tug on the sleeve, or saying his name, or making a sound.  Once he has Dad’s attention he now directs Dad’s attention to the caterpillar. He could do this through saying a word or a sound, but the key thing is that he looks from the caterpillar to his Dad and back to the caterpillar again, probably while pointing to it. Essentially sharing this ‘news’ about the caterpillar doesn’t require any words.

This may seem so obvious and natural…and yes it is, but for some children, this key building block is not well established.

What does that mean? Well, think of the most boring talk, lecture or class that you’ve ever been too, one where no one is listening to the speaker, as the speaker talks and talks. Perhaps you remember the topic, but do you remember much of what was said? Possibly not. The speaker did not engage you as the listener, and so did not gain (or maintain) your focus of attention.

Similarly when there is not joint attention between the child and his communication partner, it is less likely that he is listening to what is being said to him, and so he may not respond, or may respond inappropriately or inconsistently.

For some children, establishing joint attention can be quite challenging. Why is this the case? Well, it can be for many reasons, be it a specific language or communication problem, or as part of other learning or social communication difficulties. It is something created, not enforced. Without it, great strategies such as ‘follow your child’s lead’ and ‘simplify your language’ may not be particularly effective.

I often find that children can establish joint attention when doing social play, such as peekaboo, or rough and tumble play. It can be harder to do when there are objects or toys involved.

When focusing on joint attention, it can be useful to use as little speech as possible. Instead focus on:

Eye contact: getting down to your child’s level…This can involve a certain amount of bending and stretching! It also means bringing things near your eyes so your child is more likely to glance at you as he looks at the particular toy or object.

Animated facial expression: Showing interest and excitement in what you are sharing with your child.

Using your voice:  It’s not about being a kid’s TV show host, but using your voice in an animated way can capture attention. Experiment with using, ‘Oh’ to communicate different ideas- shock, interest, curiosity…

Improvising: No you don’t need to be an actor or musician. You just need to be brave enough to go with the moment. It means, not taking things for granted, being less predictable, not doing what your child expects, not anticipating his needs, being creative…and most importantly it means having fun!

Article featured in February 2014 edition of Connected Communication Newsletter.

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