A milestone of infancy is called “joint attention.” This occurs when babies naturally learn to look at people’s eyes and follow what they are looking at to figure out what they are thinking about. We “think with our eyes” to figure out other people’s thoughts, intentions, emotions, plans, etc. Michelle Garcia Winner, leading social skills specialist, explains that eyes are powerful tools to be used for gaining information in almost any situation. For example, if a teacher is showing a picture book to a small group, students are expected to show they are thinking about the book by looking at the book. Often a teacher will pause to ask a question. She may not state the student’s name, but instead signify that she is speaking to the student by just looking (e.g. “What would you do next?”). The concept of thinking with your eyes is also relevant in problem solving and perspective taking. For instance, children learn that they use their eyes to figure out other’s plans (e.g., I see him reach for his water bottle, that means he is thirsty and wants a drink of water. ) and determine what to do next (e.g. I see others lining up and I know it’s time for me to line up too!).
We need to read the body language and facial expressions, the positioning and movements of others in order to make sense of a social situation. And we need to do this fast! Turns out, we have less than 2 seconds to respond in a social situation before it feels awkward! Less than 2 seconds!!! If an individual does not use their eyes to gain information and social understanding, they are missing a lot of information! It’s never too late to start giving eye contact, or more accurately, thinking with our eyes!
Observe your own son or daughter and what kind of eye contact they give to you, their peers, teachers, etc.