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ADA curriculum helps dentist spearhead dental literacy program

March 19, 2019

By Kimber Solana

Oral Health Classroom

Answers: Kindergarteners at Davis Joint Unified School District raise their hands to answer the question, “Who has already brushed their teeth today?” asked by, from left, school nurse Laura Bork, Mighty Molar and Yolo County Oral Health Program coordinator Rebecca Tryon, who dressed up as the tooth fairy.


Davis, Calif. — Dr. Samer S. Alassaad and his wife said they were amazed by how much their daughter was influenced by her first grade teacher.

The teacher had told her students a story about what her family does when trying new food. They don’t only take one bite, but three bites, before they decide whether they like a certain food or not.

“Our daughter shied away from trying new food,” Dr. Alassaad said, adding that one day, his daughter wanted to try a fig from their backyard tree which she was never interested in before.

“The braver approach to new tastes opened her mind to other new experiences,” he said. “Our daughter adored her teacher and listened to her instruction. Her teacher became very influential by being a role model.”

In November 2017, Dr. Alassaad attended an oral health literacy panel in Chicago where the attendees were challenged to go back to their communities and find a way to contribute to oral health literacy.

Dr. Alassaad said his mind immediately went to a singular idea: schools.

Children, like his daughter, are very receptive to new information, he said. This can include oral health education.

“From there, I joined the Yolo County Oral Health Advisory Committee and here we are just over a year later,” Dr. Alassaad said.

In February and March of this year, Davis Joint Unified School District teachers and school nurses held 17 30-minute classroom sessions at four elementary schools, providing oral health care lessons to 494 kindergarten and fourth grade students.

The success of the program, which was a first for the school district, was due to a collaborative effort between Dr. Alassaad, local health and school officials — with some help from the ADA. To make it easier for the group and for the teachers, who will ultimately take the lead in their classrooms, the group utilized and adapted the ADA’s Smile Smarts Dental Health Curriculum.

“I hope the efforts and the success of the program excite others around the country to duplicate it in their own communities,” he said.

Creating the curriculum

The biggest challenge in addressing a need for oral health education in local schools was putting together a curriculum.

“This task seemed extremely daunting,” Dr. Alassaad said. “To be able to utilize [Yolo County] oral health program funds and make a legitimate proposal to the [school district], the curriculum needed to be evidence-based and provided by reputable organizations.”

Luckily, ADA member dentists who served on the Yolo County Oral Health Advisory Committee found out about the ADA’s Smile Smarts Dental Health Curriculum.

Smile Smarts is a dental health curriculum for preschool through eighth grade students that offers flexible, modular lesson plans, support materials, hands-on classroom demonstrations, student activity sheets and suggestions for future dental health activities.

The ADA program helps young children develop good dental health habits that can last a lifetime, according to MouthHealthy.org, the ADA’s consumer website.

The program helps children understand the importance of their teeth; provide basic information, appropriate to their age and experience, about keeping teeth clean and healthy; and introduces the dentist as a friendly doctor who helps them take care of their teeth.

“To create our own curriculum for each grade level, that would have been impossible in terms of the time and resources needed,” Dr. Alassaad said. “With Smile Smarts, we found an evidence-based oral health curriculum that we could use as a framework.”

Helping teachers

The school district formed a small committee made up of Dr. Alassaad, school district nurse Claire Benning and elementary school teacher Ruthie Bowers to review the curriculum.

They made some modifications such as adding more colors to the activity sheets and putting all materials from MouthHealthy.org in one PDF file, saving teachers time in finding materials they may need to teach each grade.

“Teachers are so busy,” Dr. Alassaad said. “We have to do the hard work for them and let them know that we’re there to support them.”

In addition, Dr. Alassaad provided curriculum training to the school nurses, so the nurses can either present the curriculum to the students or train the teachers at the schools’ monthly staff meetings.

The Yolo County Oral Health Program and the school district also provided the schools all the additional educational materials including giant plastic teeth models and toothbrushes for demonstration.

Planting a seed

The school district started implementing the curriculum in February while celebrating National Children’s Dental Health Month.

Dr. Alassaad attended one of the classroom sessions and immediately saw why teachers and school nurses should take the lead when it comes to oral health education in schools.

“I was glad I wasn’t the one teaching it,” he said. “I could not have connected with that many children in such a short period of time the way their teacher and nurse did. There’s already a relationship they’ve formed with their students.”

Dr. Alassaad said the children were receptive and engaged, asking several questions to the presenters. Their excitement only grew when a tooth fairy and Mighty Molar the mascot showed up.

To Dr. Alassaad, instilling good oral habits in children requires a three-pronged approach: dentists during dental visits, parents at home and from educators in schools.

“Statistically speaking, our effort seems small in the overall oral health picture,” Dr. Alassaad said. “But what we’re doing is planting the seed for something much bigger. It’s a success because this has never happened in our school district before. If we can show other school districts around us what we can do, it gives them a chance to do the same.”

For more information on the Smile Smarts Dental Health Curriculum, visit MouthHealthy.org.