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Mother playing with babyBabies come into this world knowing how to cry- learning to laugh takes more time. It’s an acquired skill that is learned within the context of early relationships. It take about two to three months to develop. The gurgling and cooing that accompany early laughter mark infants’ first attempts at joint attention. Slowly they learn to follow another’s gaze, and attend to another’s interests. It is an important milestone.

Joint attention expands children’s capacity to explore their environment, and learn from others. It is also a critical aspect of language development. Close to 80% of what parents say to babies relates to something they are looking at together or attending to in some way. These early conversations lay the foundation for the neural pathways associated with the production and interpretation of speech.

Children’s capacity for joint attention is compromised when trauma disrupts their early relationships. They are less inclined to follow the gaze of another, or use the behavior of others to guide their responses to novel objects or events.

The ramifications for language development are enormous. Sound production, word naming, and oral comprehension all depend on the turn-taking and imitation that are part of joint attention. Inadequate opportunities to engage in these give and take relationships result in depressed vocabulary scores at school-age. For many children, these deficits are irreversible. As a result, academic failure is all but guaranteed.

Intervention requires a return to the kind of playful dialog observed between parents and their babies. Children of all ages can benefit from these strategies that develop the capacity for joint attention:

  • Allow children to lead you to objects they are interested in. Follow their eye gaze. Talk about what you are looking at together. Imitate their movements, adjust the length of your breath to meet theirs.
  • Whenever possible position yourself to maximize your ability for face to face interactions with children. Adjust your facial expression to reflect theirs. Use this as an opportunity to find out more about how they are feeling and why.
  • Use your voice to grab children’s attention and draw them into conversations about shared experiences or observations about what’s going on around them.
  • Use exaggerated facial expressions to teach children about feelings and widely accepted ways of expressing them – a frown, a smile, wide-eyes, shifty gaze, etc.
  • Learn to wait. It takes some children a very long time to allow even the slightest glance into their private lives.