Joint attention skill as a measure of social cognitive understanding and its contribution to the emergence of symbolic play capabilities in the second year

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

First Committee Member

Peter Mundy, Committee Chair


The current study focused on the development of joint attention skill, or the capacity of infants to coordinate their visual attention with that of a social partner (Bakeman & Adamson, 1984; Mundy & Gomes, 1998), and its relations to representational thinking, as measured by early object oriented measures and later measures of social information processing. A major goal of the study was to better understand the degree to which joint attention contributes to the development of symbolic play capabilities (Beeghly, 1998; Tamis-LcMonda & Bornstein, 1996).Specific hypotheses about the nature of joint attention skill as a measure of social cognitive understanding, and its relation to early cognition, social cognition and its contribution to the emergence of symbolic play capabilities in the second year were addressed: First, joint attention shares a common foundation in representational thinking with object permanence and information processing measures. Second, as a result of common social demands, measures of joint attention would be related to social cognitive measures, such as imitation and symbolic play. Third, joint attention and symbolic play measures were expected to be associated above and beyond their shared variance with object permanence, visual memory and imitation tasks. Moreover, as a result of their executive capacities, it was expected that initiating joint attention skills would be a stronger correlate of spontaneous symbolic play development and responding to joint attention skills would be a stronger correlate of elicited symbolic play development.The final sample consisted of 87 infants (41 boys, 46 girls) from middle to upper socioeconomic backgrounds. Infants were scheduled for visits within two weeks of the infants' 9, 12, 15 and 18 month birthdays. Measures included (a) the Early Social Communication Scales (ESCS: Mundy, Hogan & Doehring, 1996), (b) the A not B task of object permanence, administered at 9-months, (c) the Fagan Test of Infant Intelligence (FTII: Fagan & Shepherd, 1987), (d) an imitation/delayed imitation task, and (e) a symbolic play task. Contrary to the hypotheses, the results did not clearly support the expectation of a common representational foundation amongst early cognitive and joint attention measures. These results suggested that at 9 months, joint attention measures reflected different aspects of development than did novelty response. Further, although, the results suggested that some associations existed, there was no clear pattern of association amongst the social cognitive measures. Lastly, addressing the expected association between measures of joint attention and symbolic play, specifically, that IJA would be specifically related to spontaneous symbolic play and RJA would be specifically related to scaffolded symbolic play, contrary to expectations, the data indicated that RJA was more consistently correlated with both initiating and responding (i.e. scaffolded) forms of symbolic play. This pattern of association suggests that scaffolded symbolic play reflects multiple processes, especially the ability to pay attention to what others pay attention, information processing speed, and the tendency to imitate the actions of social partner.


Psychology, Developmental

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