Joint Attention in Toddlers: Why It’s Important for Language Development

baby pointing

Have you ever wondered if a child is “just a late talker” or if there’s a larger problem?

Research reveals that there are several risk factors that let us know that a child’s late talking is likely a part of a child’s developmental delay, rather than the only issue. I’ve started a series of articles to address these concerns. In this post, we’re addressing the second red flag which is:

DIFFICULTY WITH JOINT ATTENTION

What is joint attention?

Joint attention can also be called “shared attention” and it occurs when two people focus on the same thing. Usually an episode of joint attention begins when one person does something to alert someone else to an object or event using:

  • Words such as “Hey mom!” or “Look!”
  • Gestures like pointing or showing an item
  • Nonverbal methods of gaining attention such as eye gaze. For example, the child looks at something and then looks back at you as if to say, “That’s what I want you to notice!”

The examples above cover a child’s ability to initiate joint attention, but responding to others is an important aspect of joint attention too. This means that a child may be happily playing with a toy, but if you call his name, he looks up at you. Another example is that she attends to what you’re trying to show her. When you point to something across the room, the child follows your point with his eyes. A child recognizes and welcomes your attempts to engage her, to talk with her, and play with her.

When I explain joint attention to parents, I talk about a child’s ability to shift his attention between an object or event and another person. Three participants are involved in this “triad” of attention – the child, you, and the item/occurrence. There’s mutual focus. Beyond both people actively participating, both also understand that they are paying attention to the same thing and it’s purposeful for both parties. That’s what constitutes the “sharing” principle in joint attention.

 

Why is joint attention important for language development?

Joint attention is a social skill, meaning the way a child interacts with other people. That’s what communicating is – a way of interacting with another person. Communication begins with this shared attention and engagement piece. When a child doesn’t notice that you’re trying to get him to include you or share an experience, there’s not much real interaction going on between the two of you.

Babies and toddlers must regularly interact with other people before they begin to listen to your words. Over time with consistent listening and attending to what you’re saying, they learn to understand what you’re saying by linking meaning to your words.

This is how I “draw it out” for parents who have difficulty seeing the correlation between their child’s lack of consistent interaction and delayed language skills. When I’m using this illustration, I draw an arrow when I’m saying “leads to,” as you can see here:

Interaction leads to listening.

Listening leads to understanding language.

Understanding language leads to using language…

Using language (such as gestures, facial expressions, eye gaze) leads to talking.

Of course, there are exceptions, (which point to different reasons a child isn’t learning to talk), but generally, this is how speech-language skills emerge.

Frequency Matters

Another important consideration is the frequency of a child’s ability to shift his focus and share experiences with others. A child’s skills don’t have to completely absent in this area before it’s a problem. If a child’s joint attention skills are best described as “hit or miss,” there’s still usually a language delay.

Here’s why…opportunities for learning language are limited for this kid because he’s not tuned in to what he can learn from others during exchanges virtually all day long. On closer inspection, much of this child’s day may be spent “doing his own thing” rather than seeking out someone else to play and interact with or responding when someone tries to engage her. When a child doesn’t demonstrate strong joint attention in hundreds of interactions with others every day, he is at a serious disadvantage for learning to talk. He’s missing all of those potential opportunities for learning the language.

 

Signs of Difficulty with Joint Attention

Toddlers who have difficulty with joint attention inconsistently respond to your words, your gestures (such as pointing at something for them to look at), and your actions. They may appear to avoid others or ignore what’s said to them. They seem to tune out their own names and other verbal directions. Things need to be their own idea or they’re not really interested. Adults may have to work pretty hard to get and keep this child’s attention.

Kids with joint attention issues don’t use increasingly mature ways to gain attention from others. For example, a toddler over 12 months may fuss or cry when something is wrong, but she doesn’t make attempts to tell or show you what’s happened.

Contrast this with a child who has mastered joint attention. A typically developing toddler is quite adept at interjecting their will. They frequently interrupt and try to direct a parent’s activities in order to get what they want, even before they begin to talk. They look toward, point, or lead parents, and then they continue to use any way they can to make sure that mom or dad complies with their request.

An issue with decreased joint attention is even more serious when a child also has difficulty with other social skills such as making eye contact with other people and sharing frequent warm, joyful expressions with others during close interactions.

 

Diagnostic Implications for Decreased Joint Attention

When a child doesn’t consistently display joint attention, we become concerned about the social aspects of language development. Toddlers with various developmental delays can certainly show lapses of decreased joint attention, but when a child’s joint attention is consistently limited or absent, we do become concerned about autism. We should look for other red flags or deficits of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) not to confirm the suspicion, but as a way to address a child’s core issues.

 

Ways to Improve Joint Attention

There are plenty of things you can do to establish solid joint attention skills during everyday activities at home. Strategies to improve joint attention with young children begin by working on eye contact and his ability to look at your face when you’re talking to him. I encourage parents to give a child something worth paying attention to – be fun to look at and listen to as you’re playing or talking together! Use interesting objects to capture a distracted toddler’s attention. Frequently model gestures, such as pointing and showing items, so that a child will first begin to understand these important nonverbal ways of communicating and eventually use them to initiate interaction with you. Position yourself to make eye contact and sustained interaction easier for the child. Get on the same level. For example, if he’s up on the couch, sit on the floor so that your eyes are across from his. For additional ideas, read more about joint attention. If you’re more of an auditory learner, listen to my podcast about joint attention.

 

Recommendations for Parents

The most important recommendation I can make for parents of a child who is struggling with joint attention is to get professional assistance. Begin by discussing the concerns with your pediatrician or other healthcare professional. Ask for a referral for a developmental assessment. If your doctor dismisses your concerns, get another opinion! You know your child better than anyone else ever will and if you’re feeling uneasy about your child’s development, trust your instincts!

Early intervention is especially critical for a child with joint attention and other social skill problems since maturity alone does not resolve these kinds of issues.

By this I mean that a child won’t “grow out of it.”

Intervention is absolutely necessary and may look different over the course of a childhood for a kid with social interaction differences. In early toddlerhood and throughout the preschool years, I believe that specialized developmental services are critical. This period is when we can make the MOST difference in a child’s outcome. It’s when developing brains are most “ready” for growth.

Parents of a child with any kind of social-communication problem will benefit dramatically from having a professional or team of professionals teach them ways to successfully address their own child’s needs at home. When this happens, intervention isn’t a once or twice a week thing limited to therapy or preschool. By working with therapists and teachers who have had experience treating other children with similar backgrounds, you’ll be able to trust that you’re doing everything you can to help.

 

Special note for/about professionals…

Sometimes a speech-language pathologist may be reluctant to discuss the importance of joint attention and other red flags for autism with parents opting for more general terms such as “language delay” or “late talker.” This can occur when a therapist is unsure if a child would meet the diagnostic threshold for receiving an official diagnosis of autism. A therapist may be afraid of being “wrong” or overstepping their bounds. In some states, therapists are discouraged from offering a diagnosis and must refer a child for further testing from a developmental pediatrician, neurologist, or another medical specialist.

While I understand these issues, it’s not an excuse not to talk honestly with families. As I’ve stated in previous posts in this series, when we don’t share the full extent of a child’s issues with parents, I believe that we’re essentially withholding important information. I don’t want to be that kind of professional (or that kind of person) so I have “the talk” with parents, even when it’s uncomfortable for everyone.

If you’re a parent and working with a professional who you sense may be holding back, be direct. Bring up the subject yourself. Take a deep breath and ask, “Do you think this is more than late talking?”

 

WRAP UP

In summary, a toddler with limited joint attention may have difficulty acquiring a broad range of developmental skills including learning how to interact with others and make friends, how to talk, how to understand words, and how to process and use incoming information. These challenges may overlap into additional areas of development, but early intervention (when the child is young – before 5) can be highly successful for significantly improving, and in some cases, even eliminating these problems.

If you’re a parent, I hope that this information will help you understand what may be going on with your own child. If you’re a therapist, this is the kind of information that doctors and other professionals may not be sharing with parents of a child with a language delay due to limited social skills. It’s up to us to help families understand the depth of a child’s issues and provide hope that therapy, along with consistent parental commitment, can make a huge difference!

Keep watching for additional posts in this series! If you missed the first two, check them out here and here! Next we’ll discuss receptive language delays.

Laura

 

Product Recommendations from teachmetotalk.com for Helping Toddlers with Language Delays due to Limited Joint Attention

Kids with decreased joint attention will have difficulty learning to understand and use language. My best resources for parents include:

Teach Me To Play WITH You is my first book written for both parents and professionals. In this therapy manual, you’ll learn my best tips for helping a toddler learn how to consistently interact with you during fun games and social routines. It’s the starting point for therapy for any child with limited joint attention. Each activity is written in a “homework format” with step-by-step instructions and goals that are clearly delineated. I get emails every day from parents who rave about how quickly they noticed changes in their toddlers once they implemented these techniques.

Teach Me To Listen and Obey (2 DVD Set) focuses on receptive language or what a child understands. Many children with significant differences in their joint attention skills also have severe receptive language delays. Here’s why…if a kid doesn’t regularly attend to other people, he’s not going to understand what they say to him. When a child doesn’t understand words, he’s not going to use words (aka…talk). If a toddler is over 18 months and doesn’t follow simple directions, receptive language delays are highly likely. In this DVD for adults, you’ll learn important comprehension milestones and receive recommendations for working on these skills at home and during therapy sessions. You’ll SEE video clips of me working with children with language delays during speech therapy sessions so that you can duplicate the activities.

Teach Me To Talk the DVD focuses on expressive language or what a child says. In this DVD, you’ll see the 6 beginning strategies I teach parents of late talkers. The DVD is filled with video clips of children with a wide range of abilities from 12 months to 3 years. It’s a great starting place for most parents (and therapists!) who want to learn real life ways to work with a toddler with language delays.

If you’re more of a reader or if you want detailed goal lists for both receptive and expressive language matched with activities to use with toddlers and preschoolers, take a look at my book at Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual. There’s a chapter on social skills that’s a fantastic guide for targeting joint attention and social interaction. This book was written for speech-language pathologists, but many parents use it as their basis for “at home” therapy.

For therapists (and ULTRA committed parents who are working with their children intensely or parents who don’t have access to services and need professional-level information), my CE courses that best address social skills are:

Is It Autism? Recognizing and Treating Toddlers and Preschoolers with Red Flags for ASD. This course on DVD has two parts. Part One entails a comprehensive look at the diagnostic criteria for autism so it takes some of the guesswork out of this process. If you’re a professional and find yourself wondering if a child would or wouldn’t get an ASD diagnosis, this course is for you! Part Two is all about intervention. You’ll learn the most effective treatment strategies and approaches to jump-start progress in a toddler with red flags for autism, including limited joint attention.

Early Speech-Language Development: Taking Theory to the Floor is a comprehensive 12-hour course on DVD. All areas of language development (social, receptive, expressive, and intelligibility) are addressed. There’s a long section with a lengthy, meaty discussions about social issues since this information is limited in grad school programs for SLPs.

Both courses are approved for ASHA credit for speech-language pathologists (and if you’re in IL, it’s preapproved for EI credit!) with a certificate of completion for other therapists to use toward licensure or certification requirements.

Need a coupon code? Join my email list and you’ll get one! It’s on the last page of the FREE parent eBook. You’ll get emails with the most current sales with coupon codes not published here on the site. Sign up in the green banner.

 

Links to Milestones

Follow these informative links to the Center for Disease Control website with lists of skills and pictures to show you what’s normal for a child’s age range. Remember that most babies will have easily achieved the skills listed there – meaning that the standards listed are set at a minimal level to account for a wide range of “normal.” (In other words, the bar is pretty low.) If a child hasn’t met all the skills on these lists or especially exhibits the concerns in the bottom “Act Early” boxes, there is a definite reason to speak to your child’s doctor or healthcare professional.

12 months

18 months

2 years

3 years

4 years

 

**Photo from mom-psych.com**

 

Laura

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Teach Me To Talk Testimonials

Happy Therapists, Teachers, Parents & Children

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your generosity in sharing so much knowledge in such a clear and enthusiastic way.

As a retired audiologist with a fabulous and language delayed grandson, I used your podcasts and outstanding publication, The Autism Workbook, to inspire and guide me over the past year.

It works!! He went from barely verbal, no gestures, didn't respond to his name etc etc to a verbal, social, curious, ready to imitate anything, fill in the blanks on familiar "set" speech, generate his own totally appropriate and mostly understandable sentences...not just short phrases anymore... full little paragraphs...about imaginary things, what he did during the day, what he wants. True communication!

You make a powerful difference in this world! ❤

With gratitude,
Diane

"Laura Mize, you are a Godsend. I don’t know how one human can have so many helpful things to say in a beautifully organized way, so often. Always amazes me when another super helpful email comes from you, and for free. With free YouTube videos and cheap CEUs. THANK YOU!!!"

Sheila, Canada

"I purchased the book on autism and have watched the #400s series podcasts. Laura Mize has been more effective in teaching autistic tendencies, than many professors, shadowing professions, and the 100s of books, articles and classes or videos, or live workshop speakers, have been at teaching effective practices for a child with ASD. Some of the many lessons she has taught, which I will now use, to be a more effective Interventionist, include but are not limited to: red flags, typical behaviors, self-stimulating behaviors, not taking away toys, rather showing child to play with toy appropriately. She gives examples of child's actions, "inappropriate," explains the reason for: why the child is engaging in these behaviors and how they can be replaced with more appropriate, effective fuctional and age-appropriate skills."

"I’m sure Laura gets these messages all the time, but I thought I’d share. I stumbled across Laura‘s "Autism or Speech Delay?" YouTube video when I really needed it. This video finally listed and explained some of the red flags my son was showing for autism. I share the link anytime a parent is questioning in my FB autism group. This mother I don’t even know said Laura's video changed her life. I know exactly how she feels because It changed families too. Thank you to everyone at Teach Me To Talk."

LINDSAY

"Good Morning Laura,
I received your book (The Autism Workbook) yesterday and it is absolutely amazing! As I evaluate young children (0-3) for developmental delays and write plans for them with their parents, there are a ton of ideas that are ready to use. Others that reinforce what I have been doing, and saying, all along. Thank you so, so much for writing this incredible book and pulling everything together in one place!"

FRANCINE IN MICHIGAN

"Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge, experience, and guidance.
I’m a parent who bought the autism workbook and it’s the only clear resource I found to make a change in my son. I’m really thankful to Ms. Laura for helping out people like us all over the world."

"Laura Mize, all I have to say is that ALL YOUR STRATEGIES WORK."

ANNE, YouTube viewer

"We have 7 SLPs in our preschool (public) program for special needs children (ages 3-5) and we use your courses, books, and techniques every day! :-) We have seen our preschoolers make such great gains!"

 

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Girl…my son is 3 years old, and he NEVER asks for something using words. We were playing “Get Your Belly” (from Teach Me to Play WITH You), and after several times, he laughed and screamed "BEWIEEE!!!"  It was a hoot. And I can't believe he said it! I have played with him like this before, but this time I took your advice and acted CRAZY!! I will act like a total lunatic if it will get him to talk to me!  Now I can give him "the look" from across the room, and he will say it. That manual is so amazingly practical, and it is a GODSEND right now! Thank you SO MUCH!”

"I wanted to send you a quick email to say thank you. I started watching your videos/podcasts about 4 months ago. My son has gone from losing words he previously used, only having about 7 words at his 2 year check up in August (assessed at a blended 10 month language level) -- to now having so many words, increased social engagement, following commands, spontaneously requesting things, and naming letters & numbers (not in order) as well as colors. We had our monthly meeting with our SLP through the state infants & toddlers program and it felt like we were just bragging the whole time, but I knew in the back of my head it was because I have been using strategies you taught me.

We still have so much work to do with our sweet boy, but I know in my heart he would not have succeeded without the education you provided. I will continue to read your emails & watch videos as we go along this journey and face challenges, but credit is due to you, Laura.

Thank you so much, endlessly."

KATIE

"I just want to tell how fortunate I feel to have found your website and you!! I became a special instructor in EI almost a year ago and I started with hardly any applicable training. I felt so lost and confused as how to help the kids I work with learn how to use words and play. Honestly, I didn't even understand the importance of play, although I always played with my kids. But, once I started to watch your podcasts and get some of your manuals I felt a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and that I could finally teach these kids and their families something of value from a real therapist and based on research!. Thank you so much for seeing the need to help other EI service providers and providing a forum to share your knowledge and years of valuable experience. I'm sure you get a lot of these emails every week if not every day, but I wanted to make I could add to those notes of gratitude!! THANK YOU again!!"

SS

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REBECCA

"I was very frustrated with how speech therapy was going for my child. I would take him and drop him off and not hear much of anything from his therapist and teachers other than, "He had a good (or a bad!) day." Your materials were invaluable for us because I learned how to work with him on his speech. I learned how to teach him to talk and play. I learned how to pay attention to his cues and work with him to teach him to communicate. Without it, I have no doubt he still wouldn’t talk."

BRITNEY

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ALLISON

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