Do you see what I see?

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.

Joint Attention:

Image result for joint attention pictures

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:

  1. 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.

3.Reinforce proximity:

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                         therapy-for-children-who-arent-tuned-in/


6 thoughts on “Do you see what I see?

  1. Hey Anthony!
    Once again, you have made an excellent blog post and contribution towards our understanding of social cognition. The points that you make about joint-attention, and how to properly engage it, were very enlightening. I often think that childhood development is an underappreciated aspect of human cognitive development. The neural scaffolds that are set-up during childhood effectively set the stage for the neurodevelopment of the future. I like that the first example that you bring up for child-parent interactions is reading a story book, because I believe that this is one of the most crucial for proper brain-development in a child. Like you mention, this is often an infant’s first interaction with social cognition, and your inclusion of the joint attention involved in this process is something that is crucial, but often overlooked. Another mechanism that I think is often overlooked is the tactile stimulation between parent and child, during the process of reading storybooks. Human touch is a surprisingly important stimulus for the proper development of a child, and the development of cognitive deficiencies in children that have been deprived of proper tactile stimulation is well documented. One hypothesized mechanism for this result is actually somewhat surprising. Basically, tactile stimulation of the skin, as a form of mechanosensory input, results in the skin increasing production of fibroblast growth factor-2 (FGF-2). FGF-2 is a powerful fibroblast growth factor, which is vital for nervous system development, as well as a variety of other processes. Although FGF-2 is produced by the skin, it can migrate through the blood brain barrier and into the brain, where it can stimulate synaptic changes and growth. Access to this growth factor essentially permits a greater degree of brain development in children that receive tactile stimulation, in the form of cuddling, during storybook reading. Presence of FGF-2, as a growth factor, may even result in an attenuation of the other developmental processes that are engaged by storybook reading.



    • Hey Micha! Thanks for bringing up tactile stimulation! This was one of the things I badly wanted to put into my blog this week, but it was long enough as it was. Tactile stimulation becomes especially important for children with autism or children who are non verbal. Autistic children, depending on the severity of course, have trouble making eye contact, so the crucial aspect that involves a child looking back to make sure the parent is following along with them is severed. Instead, the best approach is to either let the child take your hand to guide you, or for you as the parent to gently guide the hands of the child. Although the Autistic child will not turn around to make eye contact, they will recognize the joint attention because your finger is following along with theirs. I really appreciate your comment on the neurobiological perspective of Tactile stimulation and joint attention! It was super educational and I could not stop reading that article you shared!

      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.


  2. I find the topic of joint attention to be crucial for behavioural development! I find that you bring up a point that was previously discusses by another classmate! When engaging with a child who is diagnosed with a learning disability you mention to get to the Childs level and mimic. Giovanni discussed the chameleon effect and how mimicking is a prosocial behaviour. Heres a link to his blog:

    With the rise in technology, social media and smart phones I wonder what the impacts on our behaviour will be. We seem to by relying more and more on cell phones/tablets to entertain our children. During feeding more and more people will be interacting with their phones than their children. The eye contact becomes decreased as well as joint attention. Divan et al. (2012) dataset consisted of 28 745 children with completed Age-7 Questionnaires. They found that “the highest OR for behavioural problems were for children who had both prenatal and postnatal exposure to cell phones compared with children not exposed during either time period. The adjusted effect estimate was 1.5 (95% CI 1.4 to 1.7)” (Divan et al., 2012).
    It is important to note that questionnaires having many bias tendencies and are not the best form of data. However, the sample size was large and did find interesting behavioural associations.

    Divan, H.A., Kheifets, L., Obel, C. and Olsen, J., 2012. Cell phone use and behavioural problems in young children. Journal of epidemiology and community health, 66(6), pp.524-529.


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