Skip to main content Accessibility help

Gender and age effects interact in preschoolers' help-seeking: evidence for differential responses to changes in task difficulty



This study explored preschool age and gender differences in help-seeking within the theoretical framework of scaffolded problem-solving and self-regulation (Bruner, 1986; Rogoff, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978; 1986). Within-subject analyses tracked changes in help-seeking among 62 preschoolers (34 boys, 28 girls, mean age 4.22 years) solving a challenging puzzle with an adult. The goal was to document whether age and gender interact with fluctuating difficulty to affect children's spontaneous help-seeking. ANOVAs indicated that girls used more help-seeking during difficult segments of the task, despite performance equal to the boys. This pattern was strongest among older girls, who outperformed all other children and used the most help-seeking. Partial correlations, controlling for solving time, indicated that age predicted children's help-seeking during the most difficult segments of the task, but only among girls. Gender differences in social–linguistic maturation and cognitive development are discussed within the framework of Vygotskian theory and related educational practice.


Corresponding author

[*]Address for correspondence: R. Bruce Thompson, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Southern Maine, 96 Falmouth St., Portland, ME 04104, USA. e-mail:


Hide All
Ames, R. (1983). Help seeking and achievement orientation: Perspectives from attribution theory. In DePaulo, B., Nadler, A. & Fisher, J. D. (eds), New directions in helping, Vol. 2, 165–86. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Austin, J. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Benenson, J. & Koulnazarian, M. (2008). Sex differences in help seeking appear in early childhood. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 26(2), 163–69.
Berk, L. & Garvin, R. (1984). Development of private speech among low-income Appalachian children. Developmental Psychology 20(2), 271–86.
Berko-Gleason, J. (1987). Sex differences in parent–child interactions. In Philips, S., Steele, S. & Tanz, C.. (eds), Language, gender and sex in comparative perspective, 189–99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bornstein, M., Hahn, C. & Haynes, O. (2004). Specific and general language performance across early childhood: Stability and gender considerations. First Language 24(72), 267304.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Burman, D., Bitan, T. & Booth, J. (2008). Sex differences in neural processing of language among children. Neuropsychologia 46(5), 1349–62.
Charman, T., Ruffman, T. & Clements, W. (2002). Is there a gender difference in false belief development? Social Development 11(1), 110.
Cooper, C. (1980). Development of collaborative problem solving among preschool children. Developmental Psychology 16(5), 433–40.
De Cooke, P. & Brownell, C. (1995). Young children's help seeking in mastery-oriented contexts. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 41(2), 229–46.
Goodwin, M. & Goodwin, C. (1987). Children's arguing. In Philips, S., Steele, S. & Tanz, C. (eds), Language, gender and sex in comparative perspective, 200248. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Holmes-Lonergran, H. (2003). Preschool children's collaborative problem-solving interactions: The role of gender, pair type, and task. Sex Roles 48(1112), 505517.
Jambunathan, S. & Norris, J. (2000). Perception of self-competence in relation to language competence among preschoolers. Child Study Journal 30(2), 91102.
Leaper, C. (1991). Influence and involvement in children's discourse: Age, gender, and partner effects. Child Development 62(4), 797811.
Matthews, J. S., Ponitz, C. & Morrison, F. J. (2009). Early gender differences in self-regulation and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology 101(3), 689704.
Nelson-Le Gall, S. (1987). Necessary and unnecessary help seeking in children. Journal of Genetic Psychology 148(1), 5362.
Nelson-Le Gall, S. (1995). Children's instrumental help-seeking: Its role in the social acquisition and construction of knowledge. In Hertz-Lazarowitz, R. & Miller, N. (eds), Interaction in cooperative groups: The theoretical anatomy of group learning, 4968. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Newman, R. (1994). Adaptive help seeking: A strategy of self-regulated learning. In Schunk, D. H. & Zimmerman, B. J. (eds), Self-regulation of learning and performance: Issues and educational applications, 283301. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Puustinen, M. (1998). Help seeking behavior in a problem-solving situation: Development of self-regulation. European Journal of Psychology of Education 13(2), 271–82.
Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Rogoff, B. (1998). Cognition as a collaborative process. In William, D. (ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 2: Cognition, perception, and language, 679744. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Rogoff, B., Mistry, J., Goncu, A. & Mosier, C. (1993). Guided participation in cultural activity by toddlers and caregivers. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 58(8).
Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts. London/New York: Cambridge University Press.
Searle, J. (1976). A classification of illocutionary acts. Language in Society 5(1), 123.
Sheldon, A. (1990). Pickle fights: Gender talk in preschool disputes. Discourse Processes 13(1), 531.
Sheldon, A. (1997). Talking power: Girls, gender enculturation and discourse. In Wodak, R. (ed.), Gender and discourse, 225–44. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Thompson, R. B. (1999). Gender differences in preschoolers' help seeking communication. Journal of Genetic Psychology 160(3), 357–68.
Thompson, R. B., Arsenault, S. & Williams, D. (2006). The effects of preschool girls' and boys' help seeking on adult evaluations of dyadic problem solving. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 25(2), 146–66.
Thompson, R. B. & Moore, K. (2000). Collaborative speech in dyadic problem solving: Evidence for preschool gender differences in pragmatic development. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 19(2), 248–55.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, ed. by Cole, M., John-Steiner, V., Scribner, S. & Souberman, E., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and language, trans. A. Kuzulin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press [originally published in 1934].


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed