09:48 AM

Why Teeth Brushing in Schools Should Be Our New Standard

By providing oral health care to more than 2,000 children annually, Alabama’s Head Start programs know the power of introducing Preventistry early on in a kid’s life.

Developing Healthy Habits Early

Crystal Terry and the Alabama Head Start teams strive to ensure Alabama’s low-income children and parents get the health care, education and social services they need every single day. As the health resource specialist at Community Action Partnership of North Alabama Head Start for the last 10 years, Terry wears a seemingly countless number of hats. She works with pregnant mothers and children from newborn to 5 years old, ensuring they’re healthy and, ultimately, ready for kindergarten. And when it comes to their oral health, Terry credits a partnership she helped forge with Sarrell Dental (a part of DentaQuest’s care group) early on in her years with Head Start.

Tell us why your partnership with Sarrell Dental is unique.

When we first partnered with Sarrell Dental nine years ago, we had a pregnant mom who hadn’t had any kind of obstetrics or dental care. She was pregnant with her fourth child and didn’t have the insurance or means to seek care. We worked with Sarrell to get the mom seen by an obstetrician, and Sarrell addressed her teeth — abscess issues, tooth extractions and all. After that, the mom had a different perspective about dental care. Her nutrition habits changed. Foods started to taste good again. That was a wonderful experience to know we made a difference with our partnership.

How is Alabama Head Start helping parents and children support lifelong health?

Through our partnerships with dentists across our community like those with Sarrell Dental, a dentist visits our classes and gives each child an oral health screening. The ‘oral health report card’ from the screening goes home to the parents or caregivers. If there are cavities or other issues that need additional dental care, we and our community dental partners help connect the family with a dentist if they don’t already have one. Often, that dentist becomes an important resource for the Head Start child as well as his or her siblings and even the adults in the household too. 

Beyond that, during the year, a dentist visits our classes to talk to the children about taking care of their teeth at home. Dentists join us for parent education sessions too. It is important information because in economically distressed homes, the basic routines of oral health care may never be addressed. 

What steps do you think the dental industry needs to take to ensure we all have a healthier future?

These services should be offered in schools. We teach children when they come to Head Start how to brush. We provide them a toothbrush and toothpaste, and for 30 minutes — whether it be morning, afternoon, any part of the day — our teachers and our children brush their teeth together. Some of these children have never even seen a toothbrush before. The children I see are from homes where there are foster families, there are grandparents who are parents all over again at 70 years old, and home dental care may not be something that they think about. But it is important. 

We prepare these children for school, but dental education should be continued in our public school system, offered at least once a year. They do the flu shot, they do scoliosis screens for back problems. We should also do a nutrition and dental assessment and ask, “Are these children getting the proper dental care? Do they need to be seen by a dentist? Are there underlying issues?” Maybe they don’t want to eat or they can’t pay attention in class because their mouths hurt. Poor nutrition, headaches, the list can go on and on. It would be a wonderful thing to offer oral health care in schools.

What about your job makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning?

I absolutely love it, even on the days that are exhausting. And knowing the differences we make in the lives of the families we serve every day, that is why I love my job and get up every day and do what I do! 

DentaQuest’s Preventists are making an impact on their communities in a host of different ways. Read more stories about Preventists changing their communities and learn more about the future of oral health at Preventistry.org.