What does Attention have to do with Speech an Language Therapy?
I often hear parents say, "What does attention have to do with speech and language therapy?" Children learn speech and language mostly through play and if they don't have the ability to attend and interact with others for an adequate amount of time then they will have a hard time learning how to talk and communicate! Joint attention is one of a few pre linguistic skills that is vital for developing social-communication and cognitive skills. Joint attention is when two or more people are focused on the same object, person, event or concept. Joint attention serves as a referencing tool that uses shared gaze and/or gesture for communication. Sharing a focus develops communication skills and helps to develop important social skills, such as bonding and seeing another's point of view.
There are two ways joint attention can occur, initiating joint attention and responding to joint attention. When initiating joint attention a child may point to a toy, then gaze at a parent to get them to look at it. Older children may vocalize to gain an adults attention. A child who initiates joint attention indicates that s/he is socially motivated. Responding to joint attention is when a child responds to someone else's efforts to gain joint attention. For example, a parent points and says, "Look at the ball!". The child then follows the parent's eye gaze and gesture to look at the ball.
Sustained attention refers to how long a child is able to focus on one or more items for a necessary duration of time in order to problem solve, plan and learn. If a child isn't able to "stay and play" then they won't have the ability to soak up all the information and build on their communication skills. Many parents will ask, "How long should my child be able to pay attention?" A general rule of thumb is to multiply your child's age by 2 to get how many minutes your child should be able to attend without you interacting with them. For example, if your child is 2 years old s/he should be attending for 4 minutes.
How can I help my child improve his/her attention?
Child led play has been found to be very effective for children, whether or not they struggle with attention. Children learn best when they are motivated to do something and when they have fun. Child led play involves three steps. First, observe the child when they are playing and sit down with them (with no expectations) while you comment on what they are doing to just let them know you are there. Next, once the child is tolerating you being there try to find ways to help. For example, hand a puzzle piece to them or fix an item that is out of place. Finally, take some turns in play and embed yourself in the play routine. Be sure that you are not demanding and that you don't interfere with their agenda. Expanding on play with toys, varying your speech intonation and prosody and being animated (use facial expressions and gestures/body language) are just some ways to improve a child's joint attention. For example, if you are playing with bubbles you may hold the bubbles just out of reach and near your face as you talk about the bubbles with varied tone of voice. Exaggerate sounds in words while your child focuses on your eyes and mouth. Practice taking turns with blowing the bubbles and model play if needed. Play with what your child is interested in and follow their lead and keep play positive and fun.
Some activities that promote joint attention are:
Rolling a ball or tossing a bean bag back and forth
Play with wind up toys
Singing songs together
Playing Hide and Seek
Playing Peek a Boo
Building a tower with blocks
Speech and language pathologists are experts in communication and can help your child develop both pre linguistic skills, as well, as verbal and non verbal skills. The overall goal is to help children communicate and interact with the world around them. If you have any questions or concerns regarding your child's speech, language and/or communication skills please reach out!