How can I get my child to make more eye contact? This is a common question we often hear from parents. Some children develop this skill naturally, but for those who need assistance enhancing this skill, we employ Joint Attention protocols. Joint attention is the shared focus of two individuals on an object. When using this protocol, essentially we use highly preferred items (edibles, toys, etc.) that the child will be interested in and provide access contingent upon eye contact. There are different procedures utilized once the child reaches mastery level. A few of the procedures are briefly introduced below. Please note that there are slight variations of each procedure depending on the individual child’s skills and needs.
1) Social Referencing: You and the child are seated across a table from one another. Place up to 10 pieces of preferred edibles in a row on the table. When the child is seated quietly and makes eye contact with you, nod your head up and down, permitting the child to take an edible. A few notes on this procedure, 1) if the child attempts to grab the candy prior to making eye contact, you should block access and 2) you may want to start by only placing one edible on the table at a time to eliminate distractions.
2) Establishing gaze- or point-following: Again, you and the child are seated across the table from one another. You will need 2 opaque cups and up to 10 pieces of a preferred edible that will fit underneath the cup. With both cups upside down on the table, have the child close his/her eyes and when he/she is not looking, place an edible under 1 of the 2 cups. Tell the child, “Ready,” or “You can look now”. Once the child makes eye contact, immediately move your face as close to the cup with the hidden treat. The child should select the cup that you are closest to. If not, do not allow access to edible, repeat the trial until the child consistently (3 consecutive trials) looks at your face and selects the correct cup.
These are only a few of the procedures that we use to help enhance joint attention skills. Other simple steps could include, reinforcing any eye contact made at any time, delaying access to preferred items until eye contact is made. One way to increase the success of these steps is to ensure that the item is highly preferred/desired. When not naturally developed, eye contact is a skill that can be taught and strengthened through a history of reinforcement. Like any learned skill, it takes time, patience, and consistency.
Holth, Per. (2006). An Operant Analysis of Joint Attention Skills. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 7, 77-91