What do you understand by Help Seeking?

Help seeking theory postulates that people follow a series of predictable steps to seek help for their inadequacies, it is a series of well-ordered and purposeful cognitive and behavioral steps, each leading to specific types of solutions.

Help seeking theory falls into two categories where some consider similarity in the process’ (e.g. Cepeda-Benito & Short, 1998) while others consider it as dependent upon the problem (e.g. Di Fabio & Bernaud, 2008). In general help seeking behaviors are dependent upon three categories, attitudes (beliefs and willingness) towards help-seeking, intention to seek help, and actual help-seeking behavior.

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Do you ask for help when you need it or do you have the view, “I have to do it myself, no one can do it except me?” From a motivational perspective, help seeking is an adaptive cognitive strategy that indicates a striving for mastery and achievement (R. Ames, 1983; Karabenick, 1998; Newman, 1998) and a general problem-solving strategy (Nelson-Le Gall, 1985). If help seeking is an adaptive strategy, why do teachers observe that students

who are most in need of help are often the most reluctant to seek help? We have learned from research that seeking help from others can have negative connotations (Newman, 1990, 1991).

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Help seeking may be seen as threatening if the student thinks it is a sign of low ability. In this case, there is a personal cost to seeking help: Students may feel incompetent. Help seeking is positive when students seek assistance in order to make a change in their learning. The attributional process is an important factor in whether help seeking is seen as positive or negative and consequently whether students attend academic help sessions. R. Ames and Lau (1982) identified factors that affected the extent that college students attend help sessions:

  • Low-performing students were more likely to attend help sessions if they were given specific positive information about the effects of the sessions (e.g., “students who attended improved their performance”).
  • Students who attributed success to effort were more likely to attend.
  • Students who did not seek help used more external attributions for failure, such as “tricky test questions,” and used these external reasons as excuses.
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Newman’s (1990, 1991) investigations of help seeking among children in Grades 3, 5, and 7 provided a fuller understanding of help seeking. For example, who seeks help, individuals with high or low self-esteem? For all grades, the higher the perceived competence of the children, the less they felt there were personal costs to help seeking (e.g., being thought of as low ability). Students with low self-esteem were especially unlikely to seek help, whereas those with high self-esteem were more likely to seek help. Similar results were obtained by Nelson-Le Gall and Jones (1990) for average-achieving African-American children. Newman (1991) also found differences between younger and older students in views about help seeking. Seventh graders were more aware than younger children that negative fallout might result from help seeking (e.g., embarrassment). However, older children were also more likely than younger ones to believe that smart classmates rather than “dumb” ones ask questions of the teacher. Help seeking by college students showed a pattern similar to that of children. Karabenick and Knapp (1991) found that students with low self-esteem were more threatened by seeking help.

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One important and perhaps surprising finding was that students who use more learning strategies are more likely to seek help when needed, whereas students who use fewer strategies are less likely to seek help when needed. This attitude presents a double bind for those needing help. Not only do they lack the necessary strategies for success, but they do not seek the needed study assistance. The authors concluded that students need to learn to judge when they need help and that help seeking should be included in learning strategy and motivation programs. These findings on help seeking are important for teachers and counselors so that they can plan ways to get students to attend help sessions or seek help in counseling when needed. Nelson-Le Gall (1985) emphasized the need to think of help seeking as an adaptive coping strategy rather than as a self-threatening activity. Some ways to accomplish this are listed in Strategy.

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Types of Help Seeking

Help seeking behavior is divided into two types, adaptive behavior and non-adaptive behavior. It is adaptive when exercised to overcome a difficulty and it depends upon the person’s recognition, insight and dimension of the problem and resources for solving the same, this is valued as an active strategy. It is non-adaptive when the behavior persists even after understanding and experiencing the problem solving mechanism and when used for avoidance. Dynamic barriers in seeking help can also affect active process (e.g.: culture, ego, classism, etc.). Nelson-Le Gall (1981) distinguished between instrumental help-seeking, which she regarded as being essential for learning, and passive dependency.

Strategy of Help Seeking

  • The overriding task is to have students view help seeking, when needed, as a smart move instead of a dumb one.
  • Establish a classroom climate where students are encouraged to ask questions.
  • Document attendance and improved performance as a result of the help sessions and show this to students.
  • Be sure students who have improved after attending help sessions attribute the improvement to the help sessions.
  • Teach students a self-talk script to practice asking teachers for help in classes where they were having problems, as one middle school teacher did.
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