In cooperative breeding systems driven by kin selection, effective kin–recognition cues are important. Recognition could be achieved by the direct assessment of the genetic relatedness of individuals or by learning through association. In the Seychelles warbler, Acrocephalus sechellensis, female subordinates maximize indirect fitness by preferentially helping genetically related nestlings. Help seems to be based on the continued presence of the primary female who previously fed the subordinate in the nest but it has, so far, been impossible to discount the direct assessment of genetic relatedness. We used a cross–fostering experiment to separate the two possible cues. Adult birds did not discriminate between their own and cross–fostered eggs or nestlings. Cross–fostering resulted in nestlings that were unrelated to the primary female that raised them, but control nestlings were closely related to their primary females. The proportions of cross–fostered and control female offspring that stayed and became helpers on their ‘natal’ territory were similar. However, for both groups the chance of becoming a subordinate helper was associated with the continued presence of the primary female and not with any other factor tested. Our study provides strong evidence that helping decisions are based on associative–learning cues.