How Attention Affects Speech and Language Development

We all know how frustrating it feels to try to communicate with someone who is not paying attention. We have something important to say, but our conversation partner is checking her phone, looking everywhere but us, and when we ask a question, the response is “Huh?” None (or very little) of the information we were sharing was actually heard, since this conversation partner was not paying attention, so a communication opportunity and a learning opportunity were missed.

In the example above, the individual was simply distracted by her phone, but some kids have attention problems that aren’t a result of a temporary distraction. We want to increase their capacity for attention, because without the ability to pay attention, they are missing communication opportunities and as a result they are also missing opportunities for learning.

As speech language pathologists, we talk about attention a lot because all types of communication require a significant amount of attention. Attention is also an important skill for learning. If a child or an adult cannot attend to something, they are likely not going to be able to learn or take in information about that object or topic. Children as young as nine months of age should begin to demonstrate something we call shared or joint attention. Joint attention is when two people are communicating and one person points or says, “Look!” referring to something else, leading the conversation partner to turn their head and focus on the object, and then turn to look back at the person to see what they have to say about it. Joint attention is a precursor for language development and without it, communication is often difficult.

If your kiddo has difficulty attending and receives speech language therapy, your therapist may include a goal for increasing attention on their plan of care. Examples of attention goals may be increasing their ability to play a turn-taking game for one minute while using appropriate eye contact or following a command to look at an object that we point out. Other examples of attention goals could be commenting appropriately during a conversation or commenting on something that happens in the environment.

We encourage you and your child’s caregivers to spend time playing with your child and giving your child your full, uninterrupted attention. I don’t meant that your child should ALWAYS receive your undivided attention—it’s not possible nor is it realistic. Your child should know and understand that there are times when they cannot have your attention and need to learn to occupy themselves. But studies have shown that parents’ and caregivers’ attention can have a direct impact on children’s attention. If families shift their attention back and forth between their child, the phone, the television, the iPad, and the meal they’re prepping, the children will not receive the full attention they need and their own ability to pay attention may suffer.

So the next time that you have a moment to play with your child, put away the phone, the iPad, and turn off the TV. Sit on the floor, engage your child in something that he or she likes, and practice modeling good attention AND giving your child your full attention. It will do your child a world of good!

Natalie Bowen, MEd, CCC-SLP


Image Courtesy Pixabay

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