The Power of Joint Attention! Talk and Play Your Way to More Focus and Attention.



Well that worked beautifully! Now please, if you will…


You are a kindergartner sitting in class, listening to a teacher give instructions on how to read. You look at and listen to her, taking in the details of what must be done, the different types of sounds a letter makes, and how the letter looks. You know to pay attention when asked to do so by your teacher. You remember and store the information away in your mind because you don’t get distracted for those few minutes of critical instruction time. You go on to practice reading that letter (and all others you have learned in previous classes) in syllables and then words. Your reading ability improves as you’re able to read longer and more challenging words. As a result, your confidence improves and you take on more challenging words and books. Because you can read well, you read more and, in turn, you learn more. As you learn more, your brain gets more practice with processing information and does so quicker. As a result, you process and absorb more knowledge. Your chances of academic success skyrocket.

Now imagine this. Next to you, sits a classmate. When asked to pay attention to the front of the room while the teacher gives instructions, he does not look her way, instead focusing on his pencil or the cool colors on the poster behind the teacher. He does not catch the details of how this letter looks and that it can make two different sounds, missing out on making an important connection between the way the letter looks and how it sounds. The polka dots on his teacher’s shirt get his attention, and as he focuses on counting how many there are, he misses out on taking in the neat little poem used by the teacher to help students really remember the letter and its two distinct sounds. Then it’s time to practice reading syllables and words with the new letter. Your classmate can’t remember the second sound this letter makes. He attempts to practice reading the same syllables and words as you, but as he struggles through them, the words don’t sound familiar. He’s not even quite sure about the other letters in the words learned by your class on previous days. He must spend so much time just trying to sound out the words, that he loses sight of the meaning behind them. He feels like he’s failing and not as smart as the other kids. He gives up on the activity. His reading does not improve at the pace of his classmates and his confidence wanes. This leads to less reading, slower processing of information, and less learning. Your classmate’s chances of academic success plunge.

This is the power of attention, and its impact on our children’s potential is enormous. Of course, there are many additional factors that affect how successful a child is academically and beyond, but their ability to attend and focus is essential to learning and then applying what they have learned.


Being able to attend and hold that attention allows us adults to:

  • Take in knowledge and learn
  • Remember new information
  • Apply new knowledge and problem solve
  • Plan out activities, both personally and professionally
  • Observe and make conclusions about our environment
  • Participate in extended activities (conversations, team meetings, outings, dates)
  • Persist at tasks and get projects done (think studying for exams and writing papers for college students or launching a new product line and getting that lengthy report to management for working adults)
  • Maintain physical safety
  • Build healthy relationships with the first steps of starting up and maintaining conversations, and later attending to the requests and needs of our partners.


Joint attention includes being able to attend to a social partner, shift attention between objects or people, share attention related to something or someone with a partner, and eventually share (and connect) over emotions and experiences.

Ever looked at a baby in your arms and said a bunch of cute things to them like “you are so adorable,” “oh yes you are,” “who is daddy’s little munchkin?” as your baby coos back or looks intently at your face? In that moment, you are both attending to each other. That’s joint attention!

Ever asked an infant or toddler to “look at this ball” and have him move his gaze to the ball so that you’re both looking at it? That’s joint attention too and it is POWERFUL stuff!

Attending to each other and to other items and people sets up your baby for:

  • Listening
  • Interacting with others and sharing in their experiences and knowledge
  • Understanding intentions and that others have goals for themselves and them
  • Gaining more language and meaning (as they attend and listen for longer and longer periods of time)
  • Engaging in social interactions (talking and expressing themselves more as they build up their language skills)
  • Confidence! When you attend to your baby, you’re communicating to them that they matter! That you “see them.” You are nurturing the child!

When a baby enters this world they are a blank slate ready to take it all in and reach their full potential. In those first few weeks and months of life they seem to be looking around with no purpose, almost past you, giving you the impression that they aren’t ready to connect. Don’t let them fool you! This is the farthest thing from the truth.

Babies are magical and exceptionally intelligent beings. They are willing and ready to accept the tools necessary to thrive from day one, and possibly from within the belly! In fact, they NEED you to give them those tools. From day one, babies soak in every little word, look, gesture, and mannerism you make to ultimately allow them to grow into the humans they are destined to become. If you direct those AT your baby, and OFTEN, then you are gifting your little ones with the benefits of JOINT ATTENTION.

Joint attention is kind of a big deal (attempting conceited look). It is the building block for so many of our children’s language development milestones, and that language development is absolutely critical for their academic, professional, and personal success since it involves speaking, listening, reading, writing, relationship building, critical thinking, problem solving, and beyond.


As you can see from a few of the examples above, practicing joint attention with your littles is not rocket science. You’re probably already doing it at various points during the day. The hard part is staying consistent and finding opportunities to practice it. I get it. I had two high spirited (code word for high needs and colicky) babies. Parenthood is not sitting around next to your perfect bundle of joy without a care in the world and having all the time in the world to work on joint attention. There are sleepless nights, which make you delirious during the day. There are diaper changes, feedings, doctors appointments, siblings, worries of the next “medical surprise” curveball thrown your way, tending to the house and errands. Heck, if we are lucky then we get to have an actual meal rather than grabbing the remaining scraps of cold food other family members left behind on the table. This doesn’t even take into account complications like postpartum depression, the financial burden of trying to make ends meet with an additional mouth to feed, or lack of a stable home life. We caregivers are an exhausted bunch and the last thing we want is an additional thing to be added to our never-ending “to do” list. Sometimes we don’t want to work on anything. We just want to be able to take a shower, go to the bathroom by ourselves without being interrupted or disconnect from everything for a bit by scrolling through our Facebook feed (maybe not the best example of disconnecting, but you get me.) And that’s OK!

So if you’re tired, overworked, emotionally drained, or have had it, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to “work on joint attention.” Just be mindful and aware of what it is, that it is important, and it’s benefits plentiful. Simply being more mindful of how we interact and connect with our children, even when we are tired or not in the best of moods, makes us strive to do it better and more often.

I believe that when we chose to bring these tiny humans into this world, we somehow knew that we were taking on the most important role of our lives. I also know that as parents and caregivers we are willing to go to great lengths to ensure the wellbeing of our children. I know because I have been pooped on, peed on, vomited on, and I still would do it all over again if it meant having the two little humans I have running around the house today. I also know something else. We parents and caregivers are more POWERFUL than we know. We have the power to give gifts to our children that will sustain them for life and allow them to thrive. These gifts don’t require money. They don’t require anything other than your good intention to make them a priority, give them as much and as often as you are able, and give them with consistency and love.

The first few years of life are such a critical time in setting our babies and children up for a bright and strong future, that we can always try to do something to lift them and give them a leg up. Their brains are growing at lightyear speed during their first years and are more open to learning and new information than they will ever be in their whole lifetime.  Even if it’s once a day or once a week, those mindful small steps to build up joint attention and language become habits, and those habits have a compounding effect on your child’s future. Let’s not allow the fear of not being able to get it perfectly or all the time stop us from taking those first few steps. Yes, adults can take baby steps too!


Let’s rephrase that. How do I play my way to joint attention! In the early days of the infant it may look like you staring into your baby’s eyes, your baby is looking at you (possibly looking away, then looking at you, focusing on the difference in light and dark between your forehead and hairline), which may give you the impression that your baby is not really paying attention to you. Again, baby has you fooled! You think he’s not attending because he’s not constantly looking into your eyes! This is prime time to roll up your sleeves and do some talking and connecting so you teach him to attend and focus through example.

Here are some ways to develop joint attention with your baby:

  • Look into their eyes as you talk to them.
  • You can pretty much say anything here, but eye contact is key.
  • Try to keep a soft and warm tone. Lots of smiling. Babies thrive on positive vibes!
  • If they reach to be picked up, do it. If they push you or an item away, respond accordingly. You’re showing you’re attending to their needs, and that is very important modeling.
  • That’s it! Not rocket science 😊 Repeat throughout the day as often as you can.

Here are some ways to develop joint attention with your older infant or toddler:

Tune in on what your child is interested in or playing with at that moment and talk about it

Just like us, adults, children attend to and learn best when they are interested in something. If they are playing with blocks at the moment, you can get down to their level and start playing with the blocks too. You can talk about the blocks (describe them or what you’re doing with them…talk about a toy’s color, shape, actions, how it feels, etc. Basically talk, talk, talk and describe, describe, describe is the name of the game) and comment on what your child is doing. Ideally, you’re looking for your child to attend to what you’re doing through play and engage her by playing alongside her with the same toy. If your kiddo moves on to a different toy, just join in on the play with the new toy and do more of the same as with the blocks. Sometimes doing something silly with the toy will get a kiddo cracking up and keep their attention for longer periods of time. If they move on to a different toy again, just move on with them. The goal is not to force them to stay on the same toy/topic for X number of minutes, but simply to show them how people attend to an activity and each other and share in the same activity.  You’re not only teaching and modeling to the child how we attend to an activity, you’re also showing them you care about what it is that they are playing and doing. You care about THEM. And that builds confidence, self-esteem, and promotes a feeling of safety for a young child, which is critical to their development and ultimately impacts how much attention they can give to someone or something.

Here are some more “tricks” for playing your way to better attention and focus:

    • Babies and kids love animated talking and gestures. You will likely get and keep their attention for longer periods of time by over-doing it sometimes. This can be in the form of voice changes, exaggerated hand and body movement (think stumbling over yourself to show falling), or playing (ex. Having a lego jump from the top of kitchen counter with a loud “weeeeeee, I’m juuuuuuuuuuuuumping down!” then from a small lego block. )
  • Use gestures and pointing to model how we get someone to attend to something of interest to us
    • Eventually you will want them to point too. If they do point, look at whatever they are pointing to and acknowledge the item.
  • Eye gaze
    • More on eye gaze. We want kids to look at something others want them to look at, whether through shared eye gaze or through pointing. So when they point or gesture, be sure to look at and acknowledge whatever they are pointing to or gesturing at. When you point, you will want for them to do the same over time.
  • Hand over hand
    • If your kiddo does not point, you can place your hand over your child’s and point with their finger and name something they seem to be interested in. For example, if you see your child has just gotten a glimpse of a toy car on the floor, take her hand/pointer finger and point at the car saying “Look at that car on the floor! Do you want it?”
  • “LOOK”
    • Eventually our kiddos will be asked to “look here” and “look there” by peers and adults. You can get them used to hearing and responding to that language with first getting their attention with phrases like “Look over here,” “Look there,” “Look in my hand,” “Look on the couch” and so on. This is also a great way to build location vocabulary like (under, above, inside, outside, in, over, next to, middle, side, behind, on top of, through, etc.)
  • If they wave, wave back
    • You’re teaching them the importance of attending to shared interaction and greeting one another.
  • Comment on whatever it is they are doing to show we attend to what others want us to see and do.
  • Turn-taking
    • Teaching turn-taking is incredibly useful and requires the child to wait while attending to an activity (think taking turns with bubbles, at the slide, during games, etc.). You can reinforce turn-taking during your play and throughout the day with “It’s your turn now” and “it’s my turn” language. This also helps with impulse control.
  • Play fun games
    • Especially social games like peek-a-boo, hide and seek, sing together, “which hand?” (where you hide something in one hand and have them choose which hand they think the item is in)
  • Use FUN TOYS
    • You can use those toys that make lots of noise, wind up or those that light up to keep the child engaged while you both play and talk
    • Can you tell this is my favorite? Laughter is the best. And kids LOVE to laugh. So be silly, fall over yourself, make funny faces, and show them the feel good vibes of laughing while attending together.
    • You can be silly with an object or toy by touching it to your or the child’s nose, throwing it gently up and down in your hand and dropping it every once in a while with a silly grimace or sound, having it give the baby a kiss, or having it up run up the child.
  • Daily routines and mealtimes
    • This is a great time to get their attention. Daily routines like brushing teeth, getting dressed, or taking a bath are predictable and allow for extended attention to one activity. Mealtimes are great (provided you don’t have a picky eater) because a child is highly motivated during a mealtime to play with food, eat the food, and do all sorts of silly things with food, all the while attending to the activity of eating and the foods before him/her. Wait, you thought mealtimes were not for being silly? A post on that soon.
  • Books and reading
    • Reading together is a great way to share in on activity together. Not only do kids gain vocabulary and world knowledge, but when we read together we are pointing at pictures (getting our reading partner’s attention), following gaze, asking questions or commenting, saying phrases together, all while having close body contact and all the positive benefits that come along with touch and connecting to other humans we love and care about. Score!
  • Drawing
    • Young ones love to draw and doodle. We can do this with them and comment on what we are drawing (hopefully something fun, pretty, or silly that will grab their attention), or what they are drawing. It’s also an opportunity to talk about colors, shapes, characteristics of things, etc. You can take it up a notch by folding papers into airplanes (and sending them off) or other cool forms and talking about that. See? Not work, but quality play time 😊

Just a friendly reminder to try and stay at the kiddo’s eye level (which will likely mean getting down on the floor with them) to make it easier for them to see your facial expressions and follow your eyes and gestures. Enter their world! It will be fun and well worth it. Not only will you get to spend quality time bonding with your little one, but you’ll also be setting them on a path of great learning, connecting, and thriving!




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