When the New York City Board of Health recently announced a proposal to require preschool teachers to brush students’ teeth after meals and snacks, many people thought it was a brilliant idea - but others were left scratching their heads. How can we ask a teacher to provide this type of personal care to a student, especially when many teachers are already stretched for time, space and resources? But is this a good reason to not require this program? Here are the reasons why this proposal could - and should - work.
When Wallethub.com released its "2018 States with the Best and Worst Dental Health" list this past February, New Yorkers were in for quite a wake-up call. New York state ranked 26th out of 50 states, almost smack-dab in the middle, and right at the top of the 25 states with the worst dental health in America. For a state that’s used to being No. 1 in so many areas (largest city, longest lifespan), New York sure missed the mark on this one. Worse yet, with dental caries (cavities) being one of the top health problems in children in New York and around the world, the report offered a dismal outlook for the future. But the new initiative proposed by the New York City Board of Health could change this.
Fostering Healthy Habits
With roughly one in five New York City children living in homes that cannot afford to provide three meals a day, the sad truth is that many public preschool students could be getting their only meal of the day at school. This means that brushing after a meal may not be something that’s required or even needed at home. These same children may also not make it to a dentist frequently - or ever. Teaching young children to care for their teeth is as important as teaching them to use a toilet and wash their hands, two things that many preschool teachers already assist with.
Adding oral health to their routine can only help these children build the skills they need to maintain a lifetime of healthy teeth.
Some critics of the new proposal say there is no time to fit tooth brushing into a teacher’s already-packed schedule, but for something this important, there are always ways to make time. If a classroom has 20 students and five students can brush their teeth at a time for two minutes, that’s just eight extra minutes of a teacher’s day - and those eight minutes can be easily shaved off other activities. Plus, if students are only taking two minutes to brush, they are only losing two minutes of their day. Students could easily be pulled aside at the end of recess or lunch without missing instructional time.
Calling on the Community
Another concern critics cite is the cost of providing toothbrushes and toothpaste, but this can be easily overcome with donations from manufacturers, taxpayers and even dental clinics. If the children have a spare brush at home, they can also bring their own to school with them and store it in a designated area in the classroom.
Yes, startup costs may require an investment, but think of all the money and time it will save in years to come. With elementary school children missing an average of 2.1 days of school a year due to dental problems and high school students missing 2.3 days a year for the same reason, teaching proper oral health at a young age can save an entire month of missed instructional time! Not bad for two minutes a day in the washroom.
Furthermore, with dental costs for low-income children skyrocketing (the ADA claims American taxpayers paid $50 billion a year on low-income oral health in 1990, but a staggering $130 billion in 2014), the savings in cavity costs alone could fund many other programs around the city and state.
Ultimately, it is up to us as a society to make sure our children are healthy and cared for. If the only opportunity they get for this is at school, then we owe it to them to make sure they get that opportunity. Even if they are in excellent health with great dental benefits, fostering a lifetime of proper oral health care at a young age will set children up for a lifetime of healthy habits that will keep them present and engaged as they grow.