Headstart for Life

Talking with Your Eyes

Posted on Monday, July 8, 2019 by 2 minutes

Welcome back to Beyond Therapy, HeadStart For Life’s blog!

This week, we will be discussing joint attention, or how we learn to talk with our eyes, and why it is a topic that is important enough to keep revisiting.

Consider John, an energetic two-year-old who loves playing with his Paw Patrol truck while he’s eating his lunch. During one such mealtime, John drops his toy on the floor. Immediately he calls out, “Mummy truck! Want truck!”

For John to be able to intentionally call for mummy and tell her exactly what he wants may seem simple. But this in fact, requires a mastery of several skills and one of which, is joint attention.


So what is joint attention?

Joint attention is the capability to focus on a specific thing with another person simultaneously. But it is not simply looking at the same object at the same time. It involves an awareness (and possible enjoyment) of the knowledge that both parties are engaged in looking at that same object, and that both are similarly interested or engaged.

At the fundamental level, the item being focused on may be tangible (such as people or objects), and involves the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention. For John, the fallen truck must first gain and hold his attention, but he must then also be able to shift his attention to his mother, and go back and forth between her and the truck.

But joint attention functions independently of verbal language. It utilises a shared gaze (i.e. focusing visually on the same thing) and/or a gesture. Let’s imagine John’s mouth is full of fried rice and carrots when he drops his truck. Mummy is cutting John some fruit, and doesn’t notice. When she looks back at John, he points at the floor, and both him and mummy look at his fallen truck. Then John looks back up at her to check that they were both looking at and paying attention to the same thing. Without another word, mummy picks up the truck, gives it to John, and equilibrium is restored.

Simply put, joint attention is one of the first, if not the first, steps to successful communication.


Why is joint attention important?

While children are young, joint attention is centered on physical objects. As they grow older, however, it involves more abstract ideas (e.g. an upcoming event, or concepts such as love and freedom). It is easy to see, then, that without joint attention, it would be virtually impossible to engage in a meaningful conversation.

Unsurprisingly, joint attention skills have been shown to predict future language development. But apart from communication, joint attention is also necessary for social skills such as perspective taking, interacting appropriately with others, and creating meaning social bonds with others.


How does joint attention develop?

Infants as young as 6 months begin to develop joint attention, and this can be observed in a variety of ways.

Early skills may include:

  • turning to look at and paying attention to a caregiver
  • reaching to be picked up by a caregiver
  • shifting gaze between people and objects
  • sharing emotional states with a caregiver (e.g. smiling when a caregiver smiles, looking upset when a caregiver begins to frown)
  • following a caregiver’s gaze and/or pointing to an object
  • pointing to a favoured object


Later skills may include:

  • looking at the same page in a book
  • focusing on a game
  • pretend play
  • dramatic play
  • requesting for desired items, like a favourite food, or a Paw Patrol truck


How can I help to develop my child’s joint attention?

A key factor in encouraging the development of joint attention is to model good language skills with your child, and to augment these models with other sensory input (e.g. gestures). These gestures can include pointing, as well as eye gaze, to show the child what they should be focusing on.

Following the child’s lead is also a good starting point. Instead of pointing and talking about things you are interested in, and hoping to arouse your child’s interest, point to objects that they are both familiar with and interested in.


In John’s case,  before picking up the fallen truck, mummy could point to it and say, “You want the truck. The big, green truck.” Adding comments similar to these show John that mummy is interested in what he is interested in too. Mummy might also add visual input by using her fingers to air draw lines going from her eyes to the truck before picking it up.

Finally, remember to utilise daily routines. These are consistent activities that children tend to be more familiar with and more successful at, and tend to have a vested interest in. These routines could include brushing teeth, dressing up, or eating dinner. Practicing joint attention skills in this setting will help to make it feel more natural and more easy to generalise to the rest of yours and your child’s life!

Hope this will help the communication between you and your child! Look forward to our next post here from HeadStart for Life!


Pompeu Fabra University. (2015). Before their first words: Advice for parents. Retrieved from http://beforefirstwords.upf.edu/advice-for-parents-and-educators/#post-382

Super Duper® Publications. (2009, February 6). Handy handouts #196: Joint attention skills and the child with autism. [PDF file.] Retrieved from https://www.superduperinc.com/handouts/pdf/196_JoinAttentionandASD.pdf

Woods, J. J., & Wetherby, A. M. (2003). Early identification of and intervention for infants and toddlers who are at risk for autism spectrum disorder. Language, speech, and hearing services in schools.

"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 Natalie

Natalie has always been passionate about language and working with children, and finds nothing more rewarding than helping a child communicate successfully with the world around them. In her spare time, she indulges in superhero movies and musical theatre.

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