One of the key components of “normal” child development is social competence. We expect kids to become gradually better at behaving respectfully towards peers, to comply with requests made by others, to understand the thoughts of others, to play together with kids and adults, to sustain attention, and to be motivated to learn. But what makes the difference between a child who becomes socially competent and one who doesn’t? Obviously there are some risk factors, such as whether they have autism, whether both parents are present in the household, and the education and poverty level of the family. But some kids who seem to have all the advantages still have trouble getting along with others. Why?
Some studies have found that at-risk babies show some early warning signs that are associated with later poor social competence. It’s possible, for example, to measure several dimensions of “joint attention.” Take a look at this old picture of Jim and Nora playing with their kitchen set:
Aside from the fact that they’re absolutely adorable, you can see that Jim is reaching for some utensils and Nora is following his reach and looking at the same thing. This is an example of Nora responding to joint attention. (I should add that it’s not the best example because the classic case would have Jim pointing, not touching an object — but it’s the best I could find right now, flying cross-country at 30,000 feet.)
From Jim’s perspective, he’s initiating joint attention — directing Nora’s attention to an object he’s interested in. (Again, not the best example of this since it’s not clear Jim wants to direct Nora’s attention to the object.) A third type of joint attention is initiating behavior requests, such as when an infant points to an object out of her reach in order to “ask” an adult to get it for her.
You might think that these different types of joint attention are all just manifestations of the the same phenomenon, but studies of at-risk children have found that different aspects of joint attention are associated with later social competence in different ways — which brings us back to our original question. Do typically developing kids also show the same warning signs in infancy?
Amy Vaughan Van Hecke and eight other researchers tracked 52 children from age 12 months until they were 30 months old. Initially the infants sat at a table on their parent’s lap. An experimenter across the table had a basket of toys. The experimenter spent 20 minutes systematically playing with the toys and pointing at objects in different parts of the room in ways that were designed to provide opportunities for the baby to demonstrate each type of joint attention.
The researchers then contacted tested each child again with different measures at 15 months old, 24 months old, and 30 months old. Their results matched the earlier studies of at-risk infants: there was no general relationship between joint attention and later communication skills or social competence. Instead, different types of joint attention predicted different results at different ages. For example, babies who had exceptionally high ability to initiate behavior requests at 12 months were more likely to be difficult to soothe at 15 months, but also more likely to understand more words at 24 months. Initiating behavior requests had no significant correlation with social competence at 30 months. But those who had high-level ability to initiate joint attention at 12 months, like Jim in the picture, were likely to be better able to express themselves in language at 24 months (but not comprehend more words). And this ability was the only joint attention skill that correlated significantly with social competence at 30 months.
So while there’s a clear relationship between some joint attention skills and social competence, it’s also clear that some joint attention skills are better than others. What this study doesn’t show is what causes joint attention skills themselves. Are we born with these skills, or do we learn them in early infancy?
It’s also important to note that even high-level initiation of joint attention at 12 months isn’t a perfect predictor of social competence at 30 months. Many babies who aren’t pointing to things at 12 months still end up being socially competent.
Amy Vaughan Van Hecke, Peter C. Mundy, C. Françoise. Acra, Jessica J. Block, Christine E. F. Delgado, Meaghan V. Parlade, Jessica A. Meyer, A. Rebecca Neal, Yuly B. Pomares (2007). Infant Joint Attention, Temperament, and Social Competence in Preschool Children Child Development, 78 (1), 53-69 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00985.x