This week, I decided to write a blog that would serve as the introduction to my final topic. Over the next four weeks, I will be discussing early child development and social cognition. Understanding the social cognition of a toddler is important in order to study many other important social cognitive processes. It is important to know right off the bat, however, that social cognition doesn’t come out of nowhere. Just as a child learns how to walk, talk, speak, and call attention to themselves, a child must also learn how to do social cognition. This week’s blog on joint attention will serve as a welcome introduction, as social cognition does not develop without the crucial step of joint attention.
The cognitive development of an infant is one of the most fascinating subjects in all of social cognition. Infants are not born out of the womb being able to use cognitive processes and interact socially, so there must be a neural process that provides the stepping stones to what we are able to call early social cognition. The introduction to social cognition begins with the study of joint attention. Joint attention is the act of both the child and the parent’s coordinated attention on an object or motion. An example of this would be a parent and a child reading a storybook, and both the parent and the child running their fingers over the words and pictures together. During this process, both the infant and the parent are aware that the other is focused on “reading” the storybook. Other joint attention activities include These are just three examples of joint attention, but the important takeaway from this subject is that joint attention is an infant’s first interaction with social cognition. Joint attention is to social cognition what learning the alphabet is to being able to form words. (Carpenter, et al. 1998)
It is around the one year mark of development that the child begins to show an interest in activities pertaining to joint attention. Another indicator that they are at this level, as some children start earlier or later than one year old, is that children who are able to do joint attention are the same children who are able to direct an adult’s attention actively to objects by using intentionally communicative gestures- the ability to ask for a specific type of cereal or a specific colour of balloon, or an interest in a specific television show of their choosing. Part of participating in joint attention is the child not only following the parent’s finger with their own to show that they are following around, but frequently looking up and turning around to make sure that the parent’s and is still attached to their body. This action will confirm that the process of joint attention is taking place. From this point forth, the child enters the stages of social cognition. (Akhtar & Gernsbacher, 2007)
How to produce joint attention in children with learning disabilities?
Problems with joint attention are common in children with learning delays, speech delays, children with autism, and children with Down Syndrome, and nonverbal children. These children have difficulties with making connections with parents and family members and get frustrated easily with the concept of learning, as it is so difficult that it provides a negative framing for learning. For all these children, nonverbal children especially, it is important to build joint attention with them in order for them to communicate minimally (whether that be verbally, using sign language, pointing to pictures of what they want when they want it, or even just understanding deliberate grunts and sharp movements when they want something).
The best advice for helping these children can be summarized by a series of steps:
- Get down onto their level.
As a person with experience volunteering and babysitting children with both Down-syndrome and severe autism, the most important thing for engaging in play or conversation with them is appealing to their interests. If all the child wants to do is stack blocks and colour, you sit down on the floor and stack blocks and colour.
2. Copy what the child is doing.
Engage in the activity with them and make sure the child can look up and see you having fun while you play with the object. This will allow the child to feel safer with the parent and to feel like they can learn about and talk about what they know and love without having any higher expectations placed upon them.
To begin the joint attention process, place the child in a comfortable position in between your legs. As the child plays, reach around, and mimic what they are doing. Just like the step previously. While you are doing this activity, laugh with joy so that the child knows that you love the activity just as much as they do. They will begin to look up and see where the laughter is coming from. This is a child with a learning disability’s first interaction with joint attention.
4. Gradually increase the amount of time the child is engaged.
6.At this step, the child will be at the same level of comfort with doing joint attention with you as any other child. They now possess the skill of joint attention, and will begin to show signs of early cognition. (Clark, 2015)
To learn about building joint attention using eye-hand coordination instead of eye contact, please read this additional article.
Tune in next week for a blog on child development and social cognition.
Ahktar, N. & Gernsbacher, M.A. (2007) Joint Attention and Vocabulary Development: A Critical Look. Lang Linguist Compass, 1(3), 197-207.
Carpenter, M. et al., (1998). Social Cognition, Joint Attention, and Communicative Competence from 9 to 15 Months of Age. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 63(4), 178.
Chen, Y., Smith, L.B. (2013). Joint Attention without Gaze Following: Human Infants and Their Parents Coordinate Visual Attention to Objects through Eye-Hand Coordination. PLoS 1, 8(11) 79659.
Clark, C. (Producer) (2015) Speech, Language, & Kids) [Audio Podcast] Joint Attention: How to Establish Joint Attention for Those Who are not Tuned In. Retrieved from https://www.speechandlanguagekids.com/establishing-joint-attention- therapy-for-children-who-arent-tuned-in/