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From Interactions to Conversations: The Development of Joint Engagement During Early Childhood


  • This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R01HD35612). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development or the National Institutes of Health. The authors thank Pamela K. Rutherford, Kimberly McMillan, Alicia Brady, Janis Sayre, and Katharine Suma for their assistance with data collection, coding, and manuscript preparation.


This research traces the development of symbol-infused joint engagement during mother–child interactions into the preschool years. Forty-nine children, who had been previously observed as toddlers (L. B. Adamson, R. Bakeman, & D. F. Deckner, 2004), were systematically observed during interactions with their mothers at ages 3½, 4½, and 5½ during activities related to the past and future, internal states, and graphic systems. Although the amount of symbol-infused joint engagement reached a ceiling by 3½, its focus continued to become more complex and its form more balanced. Individual differences in children's symbol-infused joint engagement were stable across 4 years. These findings highlight both how joint engagement is transformed as conversational skills develop and how it remains rooted in earlier interactions and supported by caregiver's actions.