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Utilizing Joint Attention for Kids with Speech Problems

There are several measures that you can put in place to help kids with speech problems. Some of these measures are to be practiced solo, in other words, the kid alone carries them out. While there are others that can be worked on together, one of these is joint attention. So, how do you utilize joint attention?

What Is Joint Attention?

Joint attention refers to an ability to share the same focus on an ‘object’ with a second party. Objects here may be people, events, concepts, and even actual objects. It falls under the umbrella of social communication and usually begins to develop in infancy and then gradually gets better all through early childhood.

This behavior is one that allows two people to focus on the same thing in order to be able to relate with each other. It typically involves gaining, maintaining, and then shifting attention. This concept is crucial for learning language, social development, and cognition.

Note that shared attention vs joint attention = joint attention or shared attention. They are an identical concept.

When Does Joint Attention Start?

Joint attention starts as early as when the child is born and progresses all through early childhood. By 18 months, a pretty firm foundation would have been laid. Here’s a breakdown:

Newborn to 8 Months

  • Eye Gaze: this occurs as early as 4 days old when the baby begins to recognize their mother’s face

  • Eyes Checking: this occurs when the baby looks at their mother and then shifts their eyes in the direction of what their mother’s focusing on. This is regarded as early joint attention via gaze; at this stage, participation is passive

  • Eyes Pointing: at the point where a newborn uses their eyes to view an object, they move from being a passive participant to the role of initiator in the parent-child relationship

8 to 12 Months

  • Gesturing/Pointing With Fingers: development of motor skills sees the child point towards an object to share with their parents (this is regarded as early non-verbal communication; developing joint attention using gestures)

  • Line of Regard: at this point, most children can follow the line of sight of their parents to share a focus on an object or person in the distance

12 to 15 Months

  • At this stage, following a line of regard is consistent in the child. So, using eye gaze, the parent can command an infant’s attention upon introducing objects into an environment where they are.

  • Coming to understand that there is intentionality behind pointing.

15 to 18 Months

  • This stage sees children being able to hold joint attention. There would be frequent attention shifts to monitor the other party they are sharing with, and you would find this occurring during social play.

  • To adequately share the experience, the child can spot another person’s attention to events or objects.

How Can Joint Attention Happen?

Joint attention typically follows two major routes:

  • Initiating joint attention

  • Responding to joint attention

In initiating joint attention, the child typically begins the social interaction. For instance, the child could look at an object that catches their attention and then shift their gaze to their parent, cueing them to look at it too. In older children, it may be a vocal attention call such as “Look here, Dad.” When a child starts this sort of joint attention, it could be indicative of their social motivation.

In responding to joint attention, the child responds to the action that someone else makes to initiate joint attention. For instance, if a carer points at a bird and says, “Look at the bird!” The child’s response would be to follow the carer’s gesture (this could be by pointing their index finger at the bird) and gaze at the bird. Compared to initiating attention, responding is way easier.

What Does Joint Attention Constitute?

There are three main components of joint attention. They include:

  • Attention: this refers to being able to follow someone else’s eye gaze

  • Emotions: this covers being able to discern from the other person’s face about how they feel

  • Intentions: this relates to when the child and parent are attempting to do the same thing, and they are both aware of their joint action

Why Is Joint Attention Important?

Joint attention is a key component of development of cognitive and social communication skills. It is so crucial that it begins right after birth, and by age three, children can easily gain and hold the joint attention of both adults and their mates.

When joint attention skills are lacking, children can have a hard time communicating, interacting, and developing relationships with peers and caregivers. For proper bonding, joint attention plays a major role — as well as the ability to view something from someone else’s perspective.

Why Do Autistic Kids Find Using Joint Attention Difficult?

For kids on the Autism Spectrum, lacking joint attention is regarded as a “core deficit.” For kids with autism, activities like following a parent’s pointing to look at a toy or going up to a parent to tickle them into beginning a back and forth game can be difficult to accomplish.

This is often a result of the social skills necessary to share these experiences being absent. For these kids, establishing joint attention is critical for them to be able to effectively communicate what they want or need at any point in time. It is also vital to help them learn socialization — including proper social interaction.

How to Establish Joint Attention for Kids With Speech Problems

Establishing joint attention follows a pretty comprehensive process that you have to practice consistently and over a period of time. Here are some practical tips to accomplish joint attention speech therapy goals.

Copy Your Child

Children are almost automatically engaged when you copy what they are doing. This serves to increase their excitement, and they draw you further into their activity. For instance, if your child is throwing a ball around, do the exact same thing with another ball.

If they make a particular sound such as “aaa” or a gesture every time they knock a toy over, get another toy and emulate them. This would signal to the child that you find watching them fun, and you can even end up doing it in turns.

Model Language Properly

You can be a great source of encouragement to your child by modeling joint attention skills. Communicate often and gesture a lot when you’re talking to your child. For instance, you can point to a bunny while playing and say, “Bunny!”

When outdoors and you see a bird, you can look up and point and say, “Bird!” If you’re studying a picture book together, you could take their finger, point at the object, and say the name. Give them some time to repeat after you as well.

For better results, you can use visual tracking whereby you keep the pointing finger close to your child’s face and then move it gradually in the direction of the object. In addition, you don’t have to do all the pointing. Allow and encourage your child to point at things that catch their attention.

To help facilitate their development of the pointing skill, provide routine hand-over-hand guidance.

Let Your Child Lead

Instead of trying to get them interested in a new activity, observe how your child plays with their toys. Note the toys or activities that hold their attention the most and the actions they carry out with them.

You could begin by playing with an identical toy near your child while doing the same thing they typically do. For instance, if they’re playing with a car, lay down with them and play with yours in a line manner.

You could even have the cars interact by gently bumping them into each other. This allows you to initiate joint interaction easily.

Come Down to Your Child’s Level

If they’re lying on the floor, lay on the floor with them so that you’re at eye level. If they’re sitting at their little table, you can get on your knees and hunch forward. Children typically play with their toys very close to their faces, so do the same.

The upside to going down to their level is that it’s easier for them to switch attention from the object to you and back. This can also facilitate eye contact.

Keep it Fun

Play a lot! Kids love very few things more than they love to play. Consider exploring games that do not involve toys. For instance, you could play the hand swing game where you hold their hands and swing when they reach upwards.

Piggyback rides — pause to look back at them and continue when they look at you. If your child is pretty active, consider some chasing around. If they really enjoy these activities, there’s a bigger chance that you would share joint attention with them.

Start and Pause

Don’t rush. Some kids may require a little while to process your invitation to interact and play. Allowing them sufficient wait time to evaluate and understand the situation. For instance, if you’re taking turns when playing with a toy, keep it close to you when it’s their turn. Then look at them like you’re expecting an action.

Allow them enough time to review the situation. You could even cue them with a verbal prompt such as “whose turn” or a physical prompt like putting their hand on the toy if they still haven’t responded after a little while. This break in between could help them come to terms with the fact that it’s time to proceed with turn-taking.

How to Increase Joint Attention

You can increase joint attention by making slight changes to how you interact with your child. Here are some ways:

  • Ensure you always play or sit facing across your child

  • Use several non-verbal gestures while playing

  • Make sure that your position allows you to maintain a lot of eye contact and plenty of smiles

  • To get your child’s attention, try games like peekaboo or blow bubbles

  • Use toys that can have some reaction — cause-and-effect toys

  • Draw attention to your face using accessories like hats and sunglasses

  • Employ animated facial expressions and an animated voice

What Are Some Signs of Joint Attention Difficulty in Kids?

The signs of joint attention may sometimes not be very apparent, so, your observation skills have to be top-notch.

  • Eye contact avoidance

  • Inability to sustain joint attention when social play is ongoing

  • Difficulty following your eye gaze to share a joint focus on an object

  • Difficulty using direction of gaze or accurately pointing to alert someone else’s attention to something

  • Difficulty sharing emotional states with others

This is why joint attention goals for speech therapy aim to improve on these points.

What Are Key Things to Know About Joint Attention?

There are two key things to know about joint attention to determine that what is happening is indeed joint attention accurately:

  • There are always objects/ events involved in joint attention activities: joint attention doesn’t necessarily refer to interacting together. For instance, you could have an interaction like one where you and your child play a tickle game and then laugh together isn’t joint attention. This is because there is no object or event being focused on. Beyond being focused on each other, there has to be an external action happening simultaneously, like something falling off a table or the breeze blowing the drapes suddenly. One person looks at it and then looks at the other to draw their attention.

  • Joint attention always comprises sharing interests: joint attention is usually for the purposes of social interaction. Drawing the attention of someone else to something just so that they can share their interest. Joint attention doesn’t happen when one person draws the attention of the other to something because they want the object. For instance, when a child points at a cookie box on a high shelf and looks at their parent, this isn’t simply showing interest. They want their parent to help them bring it down. So, this doesn’t qualify as joint attention.


Using joint attention for kids with speech problems can effectively boost their communication and social skills. This article covers crucial areas like how to teach joint attention and understanding what is not joint attention.

If you’re trying to conduct joint attention speech therapy, ensure to go at a slow pace and celebrate small wins.



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