Updated: Aug 4, 2020
“I Can't Get My Child to Pay Attention to Me!”
It’s a phrase we often hear when speaking with a parent who is coming to us for advice.
Children often learn play skills through imitation. But before we can address imitation, we have to address attention. The chances that a child will copy us without awarding us their attention are pretty slim to none. What we’re looking for specifically is called joint attention - you and I, attending to both each other and an object or activity. Joint attention is foundational for learning and social skills.
A few examples of joint attention might be:
When you look toward or point to an object, and your child follows your gaze to attend to it
Your child sees a puppy and points toward it to draw your attention
A balloon pops and your child looks toward it, and then back at you for your reaction
So how exactly do we encourage that? How do we get our child to pay attention to us?
There are a variety of considerations and strategies that we implement in our therapy sessions to encourage joint attention. As always, different approaches work for different children. By trying some of these out, you can learn what works best for your child in terms of establishing and maintaining joint attention.
The environment: this is so important.
Consider what is going on in the room. Turn the TV off, silence your phone and place it out of reach, close the blinds of that window that looks out on the busy street. Set your child up in an area that is less visually distracting, reducing toys or environmental stimulation. Your goal is to become the most interesting thing in the room. And yes, that often involves looking silly and sometimes sounding completely ridiculous, but hey - it’s all about the end goal, folks!
Positioning or distance of the object
If you are having trouble with your child attending to toys that you’re holding, starting off by pointing to objects in the distance may not give you the most successful results. Begin by holding objects near your face as you reveal them and play with them. This helps draw their visual attention toward your face, and allows them to see how animated you are while you play together.
Intonation of voice: speak "like a roller coaster."
Most of us don’t have the gift of a vocal range like Aretha Franklin, but you can still make your voice interesting! Try switching up the differentiation of the tone and pitch of your voice. Think: “Ooooooo, this daddy dinosaur is BIG! Oh wow. Look and how teeeeny tiny this little baby dinosaur is.” You can also incorporate music, songs, humming or sound effects during your activities.
Anticipatory cues: think “ready, set, go!” Or “1, 2, 3… go!”
Anticipatory cues do just that - they cue the child to anticipate something. These cues provide a child an opportunity to practice cause and effect, and gives them that "heads up" that something is about to happen. Pairing these anticipatory cues with a variety of movement (whether that’s counting down before “blasting off” and lifting the child into the air, or counting down before letting go of a toy car at the top of a slide to send down), often draws intrigue. To avoid finding yourself repeating “1, 2, 3, go,” with no attention from your child, try pausing and waiting to achieve eye contact or other signs of interest in between counting down. “1… (wait for child to respond), 2… (wait for response), 3… (child establishes attention toward you or toy), GO! (and slide the toy truck down the slide).
Hiding and revealing objects
This adds another sense of anticipation and cause and effect to encourage attention. Try using your hands to cover up and shake a small toy, and then draw it near your face. Open your hands and then close them quickly, asking your child, “what was that?!” See if you can offer your hands to them and if they’ll attempt to pry them open. You can also drape a towel or blanket over the toy for a different approach.
Sabotage: we promise, it's kinder than it sounds.
Sabotage is a strategy utilized frequently in the therapy world. It encourages communication, problem solving, independence and attention. We do this by intentionally creating a problem to encourage attention and communication from the child. For example, if your child expects a juice box at lunch time, you may naturally have included unwrapping the straw and popping it into the hole of the container before you place it on the table. But trying something different - like handing over the juice box without preparing it, encourages several things - awareness, problem solving, and an attempt to get your attention to gain access to their desired activity or object.
Remember, what works one day may not work the next. You know your child and your child’s interests best. Try incorporating those into your play routine and build a few little opportunities throughout the day to encourage these moments.
Want more? Check out our workshops and webinars for our course on joint attention and engagement through play. We’d love to have you.