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Sharing attention for connection, communication and learning
Speech Pathologist Emma Corry looks at the importance of shared attention for connection, communication and learning.
Many families have goals for their children around development of their skills. This may include learning play skills, copying skills, cutting skills, language skills, or gross motor skills, such as running or jumping, to name just a few. We can be tempted to jump straight in to target these skills. However, jumping ahead means we are at risk of missing an important foundation for each and every one of these skills – attention.
If our child isn’t attending to something or someone, then how can they learn about it or notice us?
Before we go on to discuss attention, it is important to mention that all children attend in different ways. Every child has a unique way of engaging and attending to something and we need to be aware of these subtle cues that show they are paying attention. For example, many children don’t necessarily use eye contact to attend – instead they may be attentively listening or using quick glances to see what we are doing.
So, the question remains – how do we get and keep a child’s attention to help us to build connection with each other and support learning?
The following strategies have been proven by research to support a child’s attention to a person, object or activity:
Choose toys or activities that the child likes. The more interested a child is in something, the more likely they are to pay attention to it. So, choose things that interest them – use their favourite toys or activities in play, draw on their enthusiasms and special interests, and carefully monitor their attention levels. If your child is beginning to show signs of disinterest or boredom, then try something different. Research also shows that the more a child is interested in something, the more likely they are to learn.
Let your child choose the toys. Following on from above, letting your child choose what you play with together is an easy way to ensure that what you are doing aligns with their interests, which as we know, will lead to more attention. Sometimes your child may choose something that is certainly not what you would expect – for instance, how fun are doorstoppers to kids? Go with it. You can integrate learning and play with doorstoppers too. The things we would choose to play with as adults are very different from the ones our kids choose.
Copy your child’s actions to encourage back and forth play. Copying your child’s actions during play is one of the best strategies for getting their attention and building back-and-forth interactions. Try copying your child when they bang a toy or move a toy in a certain way. Your child may notice that you are noticing them and may be more likely to do the action again to see what you do. We all know how much children love to play copycat. Being in a face-to-face position with your child will also help them to notice you copying their actions.
Name objects or activities a child is attending to in the moment. This easy strategy of simply stating an object or event name was shown by research to be more effective than any other strategy for maintaining attention. For instance, if your child is looking at the clouds, then saying ‘clouds’ is likely to support attention in this moment. This strategy can be used all throughout the day and in many play situations and everyday routines. Using language at your child’s level will help your child to stay even more engaged.
Use visual, verbal or touch cues to gain your child’s attention. Sometimes an additional cue such as a point or verbal cue (e.g., ‘check this out’) can be helpful. It’s important not to pressure your child to look at you or the object and remember that we all show engagement and attention in different ways. The main way people get our attention as adults is to use our name, so it’s no surprise that this can work well for children too. Sometimes using a light touch on your child’s arm or shoulder while saying their name can be a useful way to get their attention.
Reinforce attention. Once your child is attending, then use natural consequences to keep them engaged. For instance, give them the toy they are attending to, finish the action they are interested in, continue with the game (such as peek-a-boo), or give them the snack they were noticing.
Being playful (whatever that looks like for your child) and having fun is more likely to support your child to stay engaged and connected with you, so get silly. And try to follow and respond to what your child is interested in. By being responsive to your child you are showing that you value their thoughts and interests and support joint engagement.
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