Speech Pathology & Early Communication Skills – Why Engagement Comes First

Engagement in Children

“Mama”… “Dada”…


Those words every parent of an infant waits for in anticipation. First words are both an exciting and important milestone for our little ones to reach, but those early words are not the true marker that bub is ready to start communicating with you – we should be monitoring for and responding to cues indicating engagement. 


What is engagement?  


Engagement is the ability to orient to another person in order to exchange vocalisations,

gestures, motor movements and/or spoken language. When a child is engaged, they will

direct their actions and behaviours towards you while attending to you.


If your child is showing engagement, it may look like: 


  • Looking at your face and eyes while showing facial expressions – smiling, frowning, sadness, 
  • Making faces and/or babbling noises at you, 
  • Calling for you to show you something/give you something, 
  • Watching your face while you talk to them, and looking to any close objects/items you mention. 


Why is it important?  


Engagement is critical to your child becoming a competent and confident communicator as they grow, because engagement provides the foundation for intentional communication and learning. Intentional communication is any verbal (vocalisation, words) or non-verbal (pointing, looking, hand movements, body language/motions) signal that a child expresses on purpose in order to communicate a want, need or desire. 


Having adequate skills in engaging with another person is important for…


  • Developing vocabulary and learning new words, 
  • Being able to follow directions, 
  • Have a prolonged social interaction (verbal or non-verbal) beyond 1-word/utterance/gesture/action, 
  • Learning to regulate self (i.e. calm self when feeling too excited and/or overwhelmed), 
  • Developing social communication skills to facilitate enjoyable interactions (i.e. talking, sharing joy, playing games, negotiating, learning). 


Why does engagement develop first?  


Engagement skills begin developing as soon as a child is born, long before they start speaking their first words. This is because engagement serves as the avenue for a child to develop all skills they will need to grow up to be a confident and independent communicator who can get along with others, enjoy social interactions, make friends and learn from their environment. 


If a child does not develop adequate engagement skills in the first years of life, this can result in…

  • Delayed language development – across both expressive and/or receptive language, 
  • Difficulties and/or unwillingness to make friends and/or interact with other children/adults, 
  • Learning difficulties, 
  • Rude and/or antisocial behaviours – such as hitting, ignoring, snatching items, 
  • Frustration. 


If you are concerned regarding your child’s engagement skills, or would like further information regarding the development of engagement and how to foster your child’s engagement skills, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our Northside Speech Pathologists and/or Occupational Therapists via [email protected] or call us at the clinic on (07) 3265 4495.


By Thida Hantun

Speech Pathologist