Headstart for Life

Helping Your Child Develop Joint Attention

Hello everyone! Welcome back to HeadStart for Life’s blog, Beyond Therapy!

Imagine this… 14-month-old George looks out the window, points to a bird, then looks back at his mother to see if she is following his reference.  Although George is not using words to communicate to his mother, he demonstrates social communication skills, the ability to interact and communicate with others.  In particular, he demonstrates a phenomenon known as joint attention.

Joint attention means “knowing together”; it occurs when two people share interest in an object or event and there is understanding between the two parties that they are both interested in the same object or event.  To have joint attention, a child must be able to: (1) Shift attention, and (2) Share for a social purpose (not for requesting).


In the above example, George demonstrates joint attention although he is not using words to communicate.  George has the two elements required for joint attention: he is able to shift his attention between the window and his mother, and he is sharing for a social purpose.  George is not interacting with his mother because he is requesting for an item he wants (i.e., not because he wants the bird outside the window) but because he desires to show her something he saw (i.e., showing his mother there’s a bird).  This is the meaning of sharing for a social purpose.

Joint attention typically develops simultaneously with requesting and is present in children before 12 months old.  The development of joint attention is as follows:

0-6 months Dyadic Interaction: interaction with parent without ability to shift attention
6-12 months Triadic Interaction: ability to shift attention three-ways between parent and object

Even before a child uses words to communicate, he/she can communicate non-verbal messages by sharing a look between two reference points. Joint attention is important because it opens the door to communication and language development.  When a child is looking at your eyes, he/she is ready to listen and learn from your language model.  In the absence of joint attention, stimulating language development is more challenging.

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), joint attention often follows a different developmental path with requesting emerging first followed by sharing interests developing later.  Knowing this unique developmental path helps us professionals and parents to plan language intervention for children with ASD.


For children who struggle with social communication, how can we help to jump-start the development of joint attention?

To get started, first help your child increase his/her awareness of others using the following strategies:

1. Follow your child’s lead.

Observe your child’s play and see what interests your child.  Often times as adults we have our own idea about how a toy should be played.  Try to put your own ideas aside and observe how your child plays with an open mind.

2. Imitate.

Once you know what interests your child and how they are playing with that toy, imitate what actions they are doing with their toy of interest. Often times, imitation gets an interaction started. Children frequently start paying attention to you when you imitate their actions.  It is beneficial to have your own set of toys so you are not taking from your child’s toys (e.g., one car for child, one car for adult).

3. Get to your child’s level.

Be face-to-face with your child instead of towering above your child at usual standing height. If your child has difficulty with shifting gaze, coming down to his eye-level will help significantly.

4. Intrude.

Find a way to get into your child’s play in a playful manner.  For example, if playing with shape sorter, become an instrument (e.g., hold the sorting box) or a playful obstruction (e.g., withhold some shapes).  This will provide an opportunity for your child to increase awareness of you.

5. People Games.

Try to play games which do not involve toys.  If your child has difficulty shifting gaze, he/she will find it easier to look at you without the presence of toy. Play people games such as peek-a-boo and singing songs with movement and actions.



We hope you find the above helpful and if you need more information, please feel free to reach out to us at HeadStart! Have a great day!

The above strategies are taken from the Hanen Program’s More Than Words Program.  Try the above strategies to get an interaction started with your child!  Once an interaction is started, continue to develop by help your child to respond to your interests and ultimately, to initiate joint attention.  The acquisition of joint attention skills may take an extended period of time, but our Speech-language therapists at HeadStart For Life are here to support your journey.

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Jessica

Jessica is an experienced speech and language therapist who has been working with young children with speech-language delays and Autism Spectrum Disorders. She believes in developing a nurturing relationship with each child and his/her family and strongly believes in active parent involvement in therapy sessions. Jessica uses engaging activities that are meaningful to each individual to motivate and empower them to be effective communicators. She is a mother of a toddler boy, which she believes makes her a more empathetic clinician.

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