Three messages to reinforce with parents and caregivers this back to school season

Virginia students miss nearly 1 million hours of school each year for dental problems. With the beginning of a new school year around the corner, now is a great time for health advocates and providers across the state to work together to improve oral health for all students by sharing with parents and caregivers a few recommendations on improving oral health for their children.

Community organizations like Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond are working to ensure every child is able to enter school healthy and ready to succeed by working with community partners and organizations reaching children and their families. I recently spoke with Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond’s executive director Rich Schultz who identifies oral health as a key area of focus for student achievement and highlighted the importance of reaching parents and caregivers where they are with tangible actions they can take to improve the health of their family.

At the start of this new school year, share the following three messages with the parents and caregivers you work with to help every child thrive in and out of school by making oral health a priority.

1 Begin dental visits from a young age.

Rich believes that, to set children up for success, you first have to meet their fundamental health needs. Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond’s regional plan prioritizes these fundamental care needs, like early dental visits. The American Academy of Pediatrics guideline recommends children begin seeing a dentist by the age of one, or when their first tooth appears; however, the Virginia Oral Health Report Card shows only 53% of children ages 1-20 enrolled in Medicaid in had a preventive dental visit. Seeing a dentist early helps providers find and address oral health problems and reduces health care costs as the child grows.  Nearly half (47%) of third graders have tooth decay; talk with the parents you work with on the importance of starting dental care early and the role it plays in preventing decay and keep kids in the classroom, helping them to do better in school.

2 Create healthy habits that’ll last a lifetime.

Childhood is a great time to create healthy habits, like brushing teeth, getting enough exercise, and eating well, but many parents may not know where to start or what to prioritize. As Rich puts it, there’s no handbook to how to raise healthy children. To help parents set the groundwork for healthy habits, use the new school year as a moment to talk about easy at home changes like swapping sodas or juices for fluoridated water to help reduce sugar intake. With links to higher levels of cavities and increased risk for health complications, removing sugary drinks is a simple change parents can make that can set children up for oral health success.

3 Make oral health a family affair. 

Children learn so much from watching parents and family members. To make oral health a lifelong habit, parents can get involved by practicing good oral health care and hygiene. Unfortunately, not all parents in Virginia have the opportunity to see a dentist; current Medicaid only covers an emergency extraction for adults, not regular cleanings. To ensure children have the opportunity to see a dentist we must make it possible for their parents to do so as well by adding a comprehensive Medicaid dental benefit for all enrolled adults.

While we work to include a comprehensive Medicaid dental benefit for all adults, Rich and the Smart Beginnings team are working with community health workers and home visitors to be sure parents are aware of the importance of oral health. From brushing teeth twice a day to visiting a dentist for regular checkups, getting the whole family involved in oral health can benefit everyone.

This back to school season let’s make oral health the priority it should be and help ensure all students are set up for a successful and healthy year. And be sure to learn more about the work Smart Beginnings Great Richmond is doing to in our area to guarantee all children enter school healthy and ready to succeed – visit their site here.


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Lauren Sawyer