One of the biggest struggles Ruby has had is her attention, more specifically her joint attention. Joint attention means when your child is sharing interest with an object or activity with another person, they are engaging in something with another person. A child can be really interested in legos and like to build things and have create concentration and attention on the task. That is great, but if they are always doing it alone, they are missing out on the social learning that could occur with a playmate. If a child is building something with someone else, like a parent, and are actively including the parent in the process, that is joint attention.
Ruby loves to look at books, she would flip through the pages by herself and quietly look at the pictures. She would do this for a while, and have good attention to her task, but if I were to go over and say, “Ruby let’s read the book”, she would often drop the book and leave. I wanted to get her to the point where I could share in this experience with her, to expand her reading experience and help her to learn new things while enjoying my company. Joint attention! When joint attention happens children are able to learn language, social cues, how to interact socially, and more general knowledge about life. So kind of important, not to mention it is fun!
So how do we build joint attention? For us the best therapy approach was DIR/Floortime. This therapy approach is not as well known, but for us it was life-changing. It is a play based therapy that taught us how to help Ruby be regulated (in the right frame of mind to engage with us), to get her to engage with us (joint attention), and to build games with her that she could learn and play more in the future with us. Once she learned a game (like chasing her brother around the room and tickling him and chasing him again), we were able to introduce language and she would start to use some! I saw when she was engaged in joint attention she was more able to use her words. Amazing! If you are interested in this therapy seriously there are a lot of free resources, here is a good place to start. Or if you wanted to get in contact with a licensed DIR/Floortime therapist to learn more, click here. I only share this because we have seen such a difference first hand and as the they say, “I would recommend it to family and friends!”
Before a child can engage in joint attention, if they are not regulated then it’s not going to happen. This was something I knew nothing about until we had Ruby. This delves into the sensory processing system. Basically is a child is dis-regulated, they are not going to be able to engage in joint attention or learning. What do I mean by regulation? Think about being extremely upset by something that happened (say you just had a terrible fight with a significant other) and you are sitting in math class. How much of the math class are you really learning? Probably not much. You may be catching bits and pieces as you go over in your mind the fight while having a physical reaction of anger. You are dis-regulated (not in the right frame of mind to engage in learning). I’m not saying that when kids are dis-regulated that they are angry, just that when they are dis-regulated that it is hard for them to engage in joint attention and learning. Here is another post talking about sensory processing.
So how do I know if my child is regulated and ready to interact?
- Are they responding to their name?
- Are they making eye contact with you when you are talking to them?
- Are they calm? (Not running round aimlessly, not upset, not hangry).
If the answer is no, then you can still interact, but there is some work you have to do before you can get their joint attention. Here are somethings to try
- Try introducing movement. Pillow smash is one of our favorites. You sit the child on the couch and count to three, or say ready set go, and then smash them with a pillow [obviously not on the face :)] and repeat. These kinds of repetitive games help them know what to expect, wakes up their bodies, and helps to get them engaged. And it’s really fun! When we play with Ruby, you could see her eye contact improve, she would be anticipating the next smash and the smashing helped her to regulate. One you repeat this a few times, try saying one, two, ……. and waiting for the child to make a noise or say three, something to show they are communicating to you that they want the game to continue. If the child doesn’t say anything but is still engaged, you can fill in the blank after a few seconds and continue the game.
- Get down on their level. If your child is playing with some figurines by themselves and you call their name and no response, get down on the floor with them and play. It can be helpful to start with short repetitive games with the figurines. For example, say the child is playing with Winnie the Pooh figures, and is just holding looking at them. Sit across from your child (sitting across rather than next to help to encourage joint attention) and grab the Tigger. “Oh Tigger bounces so high! Bounce bounce CRASH!” and have the Tigger crash to the ground. Wait for a few seconds for the child to absorb this and do it again. Hopefully you will see the gleam in the child’s eye saying “this is so amazing!”. After a few times if the child is sucked into the game, you have their attention, their joint attention 🙂 Once they are sucked into the game, change it up (no one wants to repeat the same thing 30 times, including your child). So maybe do bounce bounce, and have him land on your head! It helps to be overly dramatic in your expressions to keep a child’s attention. “Oh no he landed on my head! Ahh he is stuck! What should we do?!” The more engaged they are try to get them to become more involved rather than just an observer. The more involved, the more opportunities they will have to practice language, problem solving skills, learning social cues, and the longer the joint attention will last. Some kids want to be more involved but aren’t quite sure what to do and need a model. “Oh help me get him unstuck! Here pull him off of my head. Pull, pull, puuuuuull!!!”
- Start with what they are interested in. If your child is interested in a certain thing, go with that. My daughter loves the TV show PJ Masks. So I got masks of the characters online, we made capes and we do imaginative play with those characters. She will initiate playing this game because she loves it! And we build on this and work on skills, such as joint attention, problem solving skills, mimicking, and playing in group (with brother). Because she is interested in the activity, she is much more likely to do more things compared to something that she is not interested in.
- Are they Hungry? How well can you concentrate and do things that are challenging for you when you are hungry? Or tired? Or have to go to the bathroom? It is the same for your child. If you want to work on joint attention, make sure they aren’t hungry. Give them a snack or a drink. Snack time is also a great way to engage your child. If you give them goldfish, start playing with the fish for with them and make eating a fun game!
Joint attention is a muscle that kids have to build. For some kids this can be exhausting. So making it fun and exiting for them will help motivate them to build this muscle. Consistently trying to engage your child throughout the day will also help to increase this muscle. As they increase their ability to have joint attention during things they like to do, they will be able to increase their ability to have joint attention during activities they may not prefer (like math homework). So keep at it parents, helping to increase this joint attention will be a foundation for your child to interact with the world, gain language and social skills, and to have fun!