When it comes to the lives of our children, schools play a major role, not only in their education, but also in their overall health and well-being. School administrators are well-versed in child development and teachers often spend more time with students than their own parents. As students return to school, whether online or in-class, administrators and teachers need to be vigilant about preventing a leading cause of absenteeism: tooth decay.
Since students are wearing masks or attending school behind a computer screen, many are no longer worried about a major motivator to brush their teeth–bad breath–and may be neglecting good dental hygiene.
It’s no secret that school resources are stretched thin, so tooth decay may seem like a rather minor issue to be added to a school’s already long list of responsibilities.
Except that it’s not a minor issue.
School-aged children miss nearly two million school days each year due to dental disease. With limited or no access to oral health care, children from impoverished families and some minority groups have a much higher rate of tooth decay. These children are at significant risk for impaired cognitive and social development, educational disparities, low self-esteem, and–if their oral health needs aren’t addressed–less job opportunities as an adult. In addition, the pain from dental issues can cause behavioral problems, especially in non-verbal or special needs students. (Learn more facts about tooth decay here.)
According to the CDC, COVID-19 will have a significant impact on the dental health of America’s poorest communities so measures should be taken now to help prevent dental disease, including oral health education. This is where schools can play an important role in improving the oral health of their students in order to help improve their performance in school and overall quality of life.
We’ve compiled simple ways schools can improve the oral health knowledge of their students and parents as well as ways to serve as a gateway to preventive care.
• Support and host School Screening & Sealant events at your school. These events help to prevent tooth decay from happening in the first place and help connect kids to a dental care provider should they need it.
• Distribute toothbrushes to students who are receiving lunch delivery during the pandemic, or who receive free lunches at school. Students who experience food insecurity are also likely to be lacking a toothbrush or may share one with family members. Learn more about how to collect oral care items for low-income students at your school on our Smile Drive page. (This is a great project for your school’s PTA!)
• Distribute educational materials and display them in school offices to help educate parents about the importance of preventing tooth decay.
Help students learn about the importance of good dental hygiene. Here are some excellent ways to incorporate oral health education in the classroom:
• Invite dental health professionals to talk to students about proper oral health.
• Educate your classroom on what a healthy mouth looks like, and teach the children how to identify early signs of oral disease and how to prevent or treat the disease. Find free resource downloads, including five basic oral health lessons here: https://bit.ly/ATRes or order a ToothFairy 101® Community Education Kit for your school here: https://bit.ly/ATCHAT
• Teach students about the barriers that some families face to access dental care: https://bit.ly/HEROBarriers
• Incorporate oral health lessons into science, nutrition or arts and crafts. Find great ideas and resources here: http://bit.ly/ATFun20
• Have students make posters about how to keep their mouths healthy or about good nutrition for proper oral health and hang them around the school–especially the cafeteria.
• Engage older students in our HERO Program projects. Visit our HERO page for details.
• Teach pre-teens and teens about the effect vaping has on oral health and how the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs affect their smile.
• Tie oral health to nutrition:
- Do not give candy as rewards. (Need alternatives? Try these.)
- Encourage children to bring healthy snacks to class and drink water more often than sugary beverages. Even classroom celebrations, like birthdays, can have a variety of foods like cake and fruit, with water to flush away the sugar in the child’s mouth afterwards.
• Mouth Heroes for Schools is a multimedia resource that provides teachers with the tools to give lessons on the importance of good oral health to children aged 5–9 years.
• Hold a Smile Drive by collecting toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss and rinse to stock a hygiene closet at your school for kids in need. Or donate the collection to a school with a high number of children who qualify for free or reduced lunches.
• Give students a free oral health assessment by asking questions about personal hygiene practices (brushing twice a day, visiting the dentist often, flossing, foods they eat at home or for lunch).
• The National Association of School Nurses has more details about how school nurses can improve students’ oral health on their website.
More Resources: Free educational materials and activities are available on our Resources Page.