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Ten dyads were observed biweekly from 10 to 24 months of infant age while playing together at home with a set of toys. The aim was to examine whether mother–infant coregulation changes over the second year of the infant’s life and whether there are individual differences in that process. Normative trends as well as variability between and within dyads were tested using a multilevel modeling technique. We found that unilateral coregulation, in which only the mother was actively involved in play, largely prevailed at the beginning of the year and then decreased linearly, while symmetrical patterns, implying that the infant was also involved, were for the most part absent at the beginning but then increased rapidly, overtaking unilateral from the middle of the year on and becoming predominant by the end. In particular, symmetrical episodes of shared affect and shared action increased first and then decreased, being replaced by shared language. Variability in data was significant between the dyads, with some dyads advancing toward symmetrical coregulation at an earlier age and more rapidly than the others. It was also significant within the dyads, as the increase in symmetrical coregulation unfolded in a quite irregular manner across the sessions, unlike the decrease in unilateral. Results are discussed with reference to a view of joint attention development as a gradual and complex process.
The ability to coordinate attention to an object and interest in a person is considered a key achievement in infant development. In the early months of life, infants are unable to attend to both of these foci at the same time (Kaye & Fogel, 1980; Trevarthen & Hubley, 1978). At around 6 months of age, however, they begin switching their gaze back and forth between the caregiver and an object (Newson & Newson, 1975), and a few months later they are also capable of clearly signaling their attempts to share with someone something outside the social interaction (Moore & Dunham, 1995). This change in attention patterns allows the mother–infant communicative system to change as well. When the mother’s face is the only object of the infant’s interest, the interaction is dyadic in nature, with the interactive process as the goal and the sharing of affect as the content (Brazelton, Koslowsky, & Main, 1974; Stern, 1974; Tronick, Als, & Adamson, 1979). When the infant’s attention to an external entity is embedded in a social exchange, the interaction becomes triadic: the infant is able to share with its partner a referent, which works as the “topic” of their joint concern (Bruner, 1983;Murphy & Messer, 1977).
Many studies have provided evidence of joint attention skills at the end of the first year of life, clearly showing the infant’s ability both to follow and to direct the other’s attention in various domains, including prelinguistic communication, imitative acts, and social referencing (for an overview, see Carpendale & Lewis, 2006; Carpenter, Nagell, & Tomasello, 1998). Nevertheless, disagreement still exists on how to interpret these skills. According to some studies, joint attention represents a unitary construct that depends on a single cognitive process—either general, such as representational capacity (Bates, Benigni, Bretherton, Camaioni, & Volterra, 1979; Leslie & Happe, 1989) and IQ (Smith & Ulvund, 2003) or specific, such as social understanding (Bretherthon, 1991; Brooks & Meltzoff, 2005; Carpenter et al., 1998; Tomasello, 1995a, 1995b, 1999; Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll, 2005). According to others, joint attention includes two distinct abilities—that of initiating an episode of joint attention and that of responding to it—which relate to different skills, follow different developmental pathways (Mundy & Sigman, 2006; Mundy et al., 2007; Slaughter & McConnell, 2003), and originate in different brain regions (Mundy, Card, & Fox, 2000). It is thus a multifaceted construct that reflects the development of multiple processes.
Although they are credited with joint attention skills, 1-year-olds prove to be quite poor at using these skills in play episodes of triadic interaction. In their pivotal study, Bakeman and Adamson (1984) observed infants from 6 to 18 months of age playing at home with their mothers and a set of appropriate toys. Only one third of 9-month-olds was found to engage in coordinated joint play. Moreover, the amount of time spent in that kind of play did not exceed 10% of the total play period until the age of 15 months, and only at 18 months were all infants observed in coordinated episodes at least once. The authors concluded that joint attention begins very early in life but develops very slowly. The same conclusion was drawn in a more recent study (Adamson, Bakeman, & Deckner, 2004) covering a subsequent age period, from 18 to 30 months, when the triadic ability is well established and becomes infused with symbols. Children were found to advance into the symbolic level of joint engagement as slowly as they had into the presymbolic level the year before. In particular, children were able to use symbols routinely only at the end of the observed period and mainly in supported episodes, where most of the responsibility for sharing fell on the mother rather than on the child. Even then, only 50% of the time spent in shared activity was symbol infused, meaning that 30-month-old children still do not use language as an integral part of an activity and need more developmental time before they are able to do so routinely (Nelson, 1996).
The gap between the first display of coordinated attention and its use in social play may be owed to the communicative demands that social play places on young children. As we found in previous studies (Aureli, 1994; Camaioni & Aureli, 2002; Camaioni, Aureli, Bellagamba & Fogel, 2003), social play in the second year of life provides mothers and infants with a privileged context for sharing meanings: first at a literal level, when the infants are at the beginning of the year and are able to act upon the toys only in a functional manner; second at a conventional level by the middle of the year, when infants begin to use toys in an adult-like manner; and finally at a symbolic level toward the end of the second year, with infants beginning to refer to the toys verbally. Therefore, social play, far from being just a playful occasion for mothers and infants to have fun together, works as a special form of triadic interaction, suited to introducing infants to the domains of cultural artifacts, such as conventional norms and symbolic language (Bruner, 1975, 1982; Tomasello, 1999). In that respect, it requires the infants to make many adjustments in order to act as full participants as they must: (1) focus on the same object as their partner, which means directing attention in a way that is different from dyadic interaction, (2) use that object together with the partner, therefore acting according to the other’s actions, and (3) say something in line with their partner’s comments and thus use language in a dialogic manner.
Joint attention skills by the end of the first year of life are too immature to allow infants to satisfy those requirements, as the infants’ poor performance in Bakeman and Adamson’s (1984) study clearly showed. Indeed, to perform better, those infants should have put their joint attention skills to work in a context of shared activity and used them as a means of collaborating—rather than simply “playing”—with another person. Becoming an effective partner in collaborative interaction is, however, a gradual process. As we know from the literature on early cooperation, infants are relatively incompetent in that domain, whatever form the cooperation may take: 12- to 18-month-olds involved in social games do not go beyond ritualized interactions (Ross & Lollis, 1987) and 14-month-old infants fail to coordinate their actions with those of another person in problem-solving tasks (Warnecken, Chen, & Tomasello, 2006; Warnecken & Tomasello, 2007). Moreover, the partner must be an adult as children can not collaborate with a peer before the age of two (e.g., Brownell & Carriger, 1990, 1991; Brownell, Ramani, & Zerwas, 2006; Eckerman, 1993; Eckerman & Peterman, 2001; Eckerman & Stein, 1990; Goldman & Ross, 1978; Hay, 1979).
Recently, the emergence and early improvement of cooperative skills has been related to the development of infants’ social understanding (Brownell et al., 2006). According to the social cognitive perspective, infants approaching their first birthday recognize other people as intentional agents like themselves and therefore come to appreciate them as potential partners in collaborative interactions. Some months later, the achievement of the so-called “we intentionality” (Tomasello et al., 2005) makes infants capable of true cooperation, with the ability of sharing goals and coordinating actions for pursuing those goals (for an overview, see Behne et al., 2008); later on, the emergence of the theory of mind provides early preschoolers with the perspective-taking ability, which allows them to collaborate systematically and explicitly with a partner, such as a peer (Ashley & Tomasello, 1998; Brownell et al., 2006; Smiley, 2001), who interacts in a more unpredictable way than an adult.
Joint attention is at the core of this perspective, as the ability simultaneously to pay attention to a person and an object is considered the basic prerequisite of cooperation (Brinck & Gärdenfors, 2003; Tomasello et al., 2005). Therefore, the two abilities are supposed to be related from early on in ontogeny. In fact, Brownell et al. (2006), who directly compared joint attention and cooperative skills, provided evidence of this relationship, finding that toddlers who responded more frequently to the joint attention bids of an adult were able to coordinate better with their peer partner. On the other hand, we have seen that 1-year-olds are capable of joint attention and very poor at collaborating with another person, even when that person is a responsive adult, such as their mother. We also saw that it takes a year before they become capable of doing so routinely with an adult and even longer when collaborating with a peer. Further research is therefore needed to examine the origins of the relation between joint attention and cooperation and how it evolves over the course of development (Bronwell, Nichols, & Svetlova, 2005).
A fuller consideration of infants’ concrete experience in social interaction would contribute to that aim. We argue that the emphasis placed by joint attention research on early sociocognitive skills has largely contributed to conceiving joint attention development as an internal process, which can be properly explained only by referring to the infant’s representational capacity. Therefore, the role of social practice has largely been overlooked and early advancements in triadic interaction have not been recognized as unfolding as gradually as they appear to do. A perspective that emphasizes social understanding as an action-based process rather than a representational one may help overcome this shortcoming. According to Carpendale and Lewis (2006), joint attention behaviors are social skills that infants practice, improve, and refine by participating day after day in the real network of social interactions and that develop as the infants learn to combine these skills in increasingly complex and varied ways, with different partners, for different purposes and in different contexts (Bibok, Carpendale, & Lewis, 2008). In fact, social practice and cognitive skills are by no means independent or mutually exclusive sources of development and the two perspectives should be viewed as complementary rather than as opposite, in a closer examination of the mechanisms underlying the genesis and development of joint attention. Nevertheless, the focus on practice and learning in favor of which theorists of an action-based account of infant knowledge strongly argue (Racine & Carpendale, 2007) can be especially valuable, as it contributes to more balanced research on infant sociocognitive development than has been true historically. With respect to the current study, this focus is also beneficial, insofar as it relates the large gap between the emergence of joint attention and its efficient use in collaborative activities to the infant’s lack of specific experience.
From this perspective, we will examine social play over the second year of life with the aim of documenting the gradual development of the infant’s ability to coordinate with another person, from the time when infants are largely inattentive to their partner to when they become capable of taking into account what the partner is actually doing and saying. As our emphasis is on experience with other people as constitutive of the infant’s social development, we were interested not just in some kind of preexisting abilities supposed to act as internal forces driving the individual behavior, but in the interpersonal functioning of individuals when interacting. To analyze the developmental process in such a dynamic and situated manner, we referred to Fogel’s (1993, 2006) model of interaction as a continuous process of coregulation between the partners instead of a contiguity of discrete acts, emitted from one partner to the other. We thus observed infants’ behavior as far as it relates to their mother’s behavior, focusing not on each of the two partners separately but on their reciprocal adjustment in the ongoing interaction. As we expected to find changes in this process, we collected data in an intensive way by observing dyads bi-weekly. Moreover, as our frequent observation, multiple case, longitudinal research design provides an excellent opportunity for studying developmental trajectories (Lavelli & Fogel, 2002), we applied a multilevel modeling technique to our data in order to test normative trends and individual differences. Last, as social play occurs in an everyday context, we observed our subjects in their homes in order to strengthen the ecological validity of the study.
We examined mother–infant interaction in free play in order to observe the coregulation process as it unfolds spontaneously. In fact, although free play requires the partners to coordinate with each other triadically, as in any other collaborative activity, it does not imply a rigid set of rules, as social games do, or an explicit goal to be achieved by means of specific temporally and spatially situated actions, as problem-solving tasks do (for a similar account, see Brownell & Carriger, 1990). Instead, it gives the partners much greater freedom to choose which behaviors to adopt in order to coordinate with each other. Moreover, free play is an optimal opportunity for the infants as well, as it usually involves a parent, who typically behaves as a sensitive partner in a scaffolding-like manner, i.e., interpreting infants’ interests and goals and adapting her/his own behavior accordingly (Bornstein, 1989; Conner & Cross, 2003; Kochanska & Aksan, 2004).
Following Fogel’s theory (1993), our interest was in how mothers and children jointly contribute to the interaction. Therefore, unlike Bakeman and Adamson’s (1984), Adamson and Bakeman's (1985), and Bakeman and Gottman’s (1986) (more recently, see Bigelow, Maclean, & Proctor, 2004) studies on social play and unlike most research on social interaction (a recent example is Kochanska & Aksan, 2004), we chose the dyad as the unit of analysis rather than the individual (the infant or the mother). Accordingly, we coded that unit as a single entity, using an instrument which has been designed for the purpose of observing interaction per se, i.e., the Relational Coding System (Fogel & Lyra, 1997). Based on a corollary of Fogel’s (1993) relational theory, which posits that the organized patterns of behavior are to be found in the whole system of communication rather than in one of its components, this instrument captures the ways in which the partners adjust to each other continuously while interacting. Different patterns of coregulation are identified that correspond to the nature of this adjustment: unilateral, when only one partner is paying attention to the other while the other is engaged in something else; asymmetrical, when there is a joint focus of attention but only one partner is elaborating on the activity while the other only observes; and symmetrical, where both partners adapt to each other and together come up with innovative ways to take part in an activity.
Unlike previous studies that used the Relational Coding System to examine the first few months of life (Hsu & Fogel, 2001; Lavelli, 2005), our study focuses on a later period, from 10 to 24 months of age. It therefore contributes to extending the analysis of interpersonal coregulation from face-to-face interaction to mother–infant–object interaction. We also partly modified the original coding system according to the developmental changes in the content of interaction shown by previous studies. They found that in the first half of the second year of life infants use affective expressions (Bakeman & Adamson, 1984) or manipulative actions (Bakeman & Adamson, 1984; Camaioni et al., 2003) to interact with their mother during social play; later, with the advancement of representational skills, infants begin to produce linguistic expressions related to shared activity, such as protowords and words (Adamson et al., 2004; Camaioni et al., 2003). To account for these possible changes during the observed period, we divided symmetrical coregulation into three subcategories, which, in line with the above results, aimed at coding episodes in which affect, action or language is shared.
We expected to find a developmental sequence in the predominant patterns shared by the dyads to achieve coregulation. With respect to the main codes, the unilateral pattern would prevail at the beginning and then decrease, and the symmetrical pattern would emerge later and then increase. As the asymmetrical pattern seems to merge some features of the other two—with infants paying attention to the mother’s focus, as in symmetrical, while refraining from acting together, as in unilateral—it has been presumed to work as a transitional state between the unilateral and the symmetrical. With respect to the subcodes, we also expected symmetrical coregulation to change with advancing age, with affect sharing and action sharing occurring first and language sharing occurring later. In fact, the former patterns employ skills, like expressive and motor acts, that are already part of the infant’s repertoire at the beginning of the observational period, to communicate with others in person-focused interaction or to explore physical reality in object-focused interaction, respectively. By contrast, the latter pattern requires skills that infants still lack at the outset and that may be recruited for coregulation only in a subsequent period. Finally, as shown in previous studies on social play (Camaioni et al., 2003), we expected to see individual differences in the rate of developmental change.