Fixing Broken Smiles and Building Better Habits

Dental kits and instruction help elementary students develop healthy brushing habits

Dec. 21, 2016

Monica Reed looked into a child’s mouth and found rotten teeth.

A second student’s teeth were the same.

Student after student at Emmett Elementary School opened their mouth to reveal massive decay.

One child mentioned that his family shares a single toothbrush.

Another couldn’t remember the last time she brushed her teeth. It’s not something their parents emphasize, they told Reed.

Reed, a dental hygienist with the Sullivan County Health Department, works with the Tennessee school-based dental prevention program.

She said those were just some of the things students told her as she examined their teeth in preparation to provide a dental sealant. She was shocked by the condition of the young children’s teeth.

Most said they were not in pain, but several told her they were.

“There were so many that were rotten, and some that were decayed down to the gum,” she said.

Reed made a report to principal Deborah Stevenson, who then searched for resources to help.

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First-grader Braelyn Winchell practices brushing the teeth of a stuffed animal after a dental hygiene demonstration at Emmett Elementary School in Bristol.

Forming good habits

The Emmett Elementary School has one of the highest poverty rates in the state.

Every student gets a free breakfast and free lunch every day, but they don’t always get the rest of their needs met.

Stevenson said the high poverty rate presents challenges to teachers working to provide students with a quality education. It can mean going above and beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to provide for the students’ daily needs.

Social skills are things that Stevenson emphasizes daily.

The students’ use of ‘yes, sir,’ ‘yes, ma’am,’ ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is impressive, but Stephenson knows that all the manners in the world won’t matter if they don’t have any teeth.

Stevenson reached out to businesses in her area and across the state in search of resources to address the oral health shortfall.

“We are trying to break the poverty cycle, and sometimes that requires outside help,” she said.

“We strive to provide them with positive habits that will benefit them all of their lives.”

Officials at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and Healing Hands Health Center in Bristol heard about the need and made a commitment to help.

David Stevens, director of Dental Provider Management, was one of the BlueCross employees who traveled to Emmett Elementary to help distribute dental kits to the students.

“We want to make sure they are equipped with the tools and skills to take care of their teeth and prevent a lifetime of pain and the other conditions related to dental health,” Stevens said.

Reed echoed that sentiment.

“This is about their future,” she said.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and we want them to have happy, healthy smiles.”

Teaching the right techniques

The students filed into the library according to their grade. The day began with kindergartners followed by first grade through fifth.

They sat at tables in the library and listened as Reed and Brittany Russell, a dental hygienist from Healing Hands Health Center, talked about the importance of good oral hygiene.

The pair demonstrated proper brushing techniques, discussed the harmful effects of soft drinks on their teeth, and even showed them how much sugar is in a single can of Mountain Dew – a drink the kids said was a favorite refreshment.

Reed and Russell discussed the importance of flossing and taught them how to hold the floss as they work it between their teeth. And then the students practiced brushing the chompers of stuffed animals with big, toothy grins.

Stevenson said the children now understand how important it is, and they all have their own toothbrushes and floss.

“The importance of early dental education weighs heavily on a child’s overall physical and mental well-being,” Russell said.

“If we can teach them young, hopefully they won’t have these dental problems later.”

Mathew Arnold, a second-grader at Emmett Elementary School, shows off his molars as he and classmate Riley Chapman practice brushing techniques they learned at school.

Breaking the cycle

Dr. Barry L. Hopper, a dentist in the Bristol area and director of the Sullivan County School-based dental program, said the population in Sullivan County doesn’t receive much dental education aside from what they get in the dental chair – and many see a dentist only when absolutely necessary.

“We can fill cavities, but if they don’t change their habits they are right back in the same situation,” he said.

“We fill them until we can’t fill them anymore and then we pull them.”

It is a cycle that repeats itself generation after generation. Unless students learn how to care for their teeth and why it is important, the cycle will continue.

But Dr. Hopper is optimistic the education the students at Emmett Elementary received will improve their brushing habits.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

“If we don’t make an impact while they are young, it is going to be a self-perpetuating problem.”