Joint engagement research

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The idea that doing something together might be developmentally or psychologically beneficial is currently being explored by researchers.

Researchers are looking at the developmental significance of joint parent child engagement. In particular, they are looking at the importance of symbol-infused joint engagement (Adamson et al. 2004).

Recent research (Nelson et al. 2008) has shown the impact that joint parent-child engagement has on the acquisition of ‘theory of mind’. 'Theory of mind' is the ability to attribute states of mind (such as beliefs or wishes) to other people: ‘periods of symbol-infused joint engagement may provide children with opportunities to interweave symbols into shared activities in ways that have been shown to facilitate the development of theory of mind’ (Nelson et al. 2008, p.848)

The longitudinal study demonstrates that early shared experiences with a caregiver can provide a foundation for the development of a theory of mind. This is because when participating in joint engagement tasks, the child will pay attention both to the task and to the person they are sharing it with.

This triadic pattern of attention may help the child to see the activity from the adult’s perspective as well as their own. It is this process that the researchers believe might contribute to the development of theory of mind.

The research indicates that when engaged in joint parent-child activities, the toddlers are not only in a position to compare their own feelings about an event with the adult partner’s emotional reaction to it. The toddlers can experience their adult partner as an intentional being, able to react to the toddler’s actions and also to initiate new actions.

The researchers conclude that ‘both observing a partner’s actions on and reactions to shared objects during periods of coordinated joint engagement and discussing shared objects during symbol-infused joint engagement may provide vital information about other people’s mental states.’ (Nelson et al., 2008, p.851)

This research focuses on the joint engagement of parent and toddler in a shared task. Joint making activities with older children and their parent or carers could also foster important and potentially therapeutic processes in the child. It may also foster these processes in the adult.

Dyadic art therapy offers the parent and child opportunities for joint engagement tasks. It encourages discussions of the task as well as an appreciation of the other person’s perspectives.


L B Adamson, R Bakeman and D F Deckner, 2004. The development of symbol-infused joint engagement. Child Development, 75, 1171-1187.

P B Nelson, L B Adamson and R Bakeman, 2008. Toddlers’ joint engagement experience facilitates pre-schoolers’ acquisition of theory of mind. Developmental Science, 11, 847-852.