Navigating Your Child's Education: Ages 3-K

5 min read

Oral Health and School Readiness

Feb 4, 2021 8:00 PM

There’s a lot of information to consider with your child’s ability to be ready for school and the new social dynamics it brings. Many questions and hesitations may pop in your mind. Is my child ready, or will they forever be laying in their floating carriage while in cute pajamas like Baby Yoda? Well, maybe you’re not thinking about your little padawan that way. You’re probably thinking about their emotional and social interaction skills, and aptitude for developing basic language, math, and general knowledge. Can your child perform basic tasks like using utensils and crayons, or even brush their teeth? How is their overall health, and have you considered their oral health? Did you know dental health may influence your child’s school readiness and academic success?

Tooth decay in our children can be irritating and even painful, just like for you and me. Although it is generally preventable with effective home care like brushing, flossing, eating a healthy diet, and regular dental visits; untreated decay can lessen a child’s ability to eat, sleep, and perform well in daily activities at home or school. Daily preventative home and professional care and early treatment are keys to maintain proper oral health to give your child a great start in their education.

Lower School Boy

According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), dental cavities are one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood. It is actually projected to be five times more common than asthma. In the US, it is estimated that about 60% of children have cavities by age 5. It’s also staggering that about 80% of US children have a cavity by age 17. As a result, cavities are the most unmet need for children. The consequences of cavities often include loss of school days, diminished ability to learn, diminished oral health-related quality of life, more hospitalizations and emergency room visits, high treatment costs, and higher risk of developing new cavities in both baby and permanent teeth. An estimated 51 million school hours per year are lost because of dental-related issues (AAPD). Dental pain may distract your child from concentrating and learning, thus affecting test scores. Daily, my practice receives calls about children with tooth aches while at school or while trying to sleep in the middle of the night.

What are some benefits of establishing effective oral health care?

Good oral health care has many benefits--beyond just avoiding cavities and unexpected dental visits. Children who have strong oral health miss school less, sleep better and have more energy, generally have less self-esteem issues, can learn and focus better with out mouth-related pain

Dental disease may contribute to anxiety, fatigue from nighttime tooth aches, irritability, depression, self-esteem issues; which may contribute to withdrawal from normal activities. Sadly, we witness self-esteem and social development issues arising from the discolorations from dental decay and tooth alignment.

Student health is likely a predictor for academic performance. Healthy and happy children are less likely to miss school, which will lead to more classroom engagement and learning. Home care dental health practices, such as proper brushing and nutrition, may help or hinder young children’s skill development. However, health problems may compromise their ability to focus and concentrate. Unfortunately, many children begin school while battling issues related to dental cavities and pain. I have seen many children with multiple cavities that are likely living with low-grade pain, and once teeth are restored, parents have told us about how much better they are doing in school and around the home.

The most common dental myth is that cavities are genetic. The vast majority of cavities result from daily habits, and most notably, dietary habits. Many children are “grazers” which means they constantly take small bites of foods in high frequency throughout the day. This is the single biggest “Take Home” point I strive to teach to parents and caregivers every day. High frequency snacking of sugary and starchy treats that are very sticky and easy to graze on greatly increase the risk of developing cavities, especially between teeth. 

Navigating Your Child's Education Podcast

Every parent has the goal to teach their little ones healthy habits that will prepare them into a transition for a life of success. It is common that we can predict when children have started preschool or kindergarten because certain social and emotional benchmarks have been met. It is obvious when children will interact with us, ask questions (sometimes 50 that actually turn into the stories), and demonstrate proper understanding of the benefits of keeping teeth clean.

How can we increase school readiness for toddlers and school-aged children through improved oral health?

Promoting good oral health practices start at home. Without the entire family on the same page, dental issues may arise that could contribute to difficulty in school. We have found that children who have little to no decay by the time they’re age 12 will likely experience very little decay throughout their lifetime because they have established healthy dental habits at home in conjunction with regular exams by their dentist. Here are a few of my most common suggestions for families with young children:

  • Start brushing at the first tooth 2 times a day with a smear of fluoridated toothpaste. This is a safe amount even if swallowed.
  • Floss daily once teeth touch. Floss picks are great!
  • Establish a pediatric dentist by 12 months of age to ensure parental awareness of age-specific oral health issues. Make sure your dentist is available for emergency and urgent care. Visit your dentist every 6 months for regular check-ups. Have the dentist apply a fluoride varnish at every check-up.
  • Read fun dental books, or watch interactive TV shows about the first dental visit.
  • Eat a diet low in sugar, especially in high frequency. Limit sugary beverages, too.
  • AVOID GRAZING--this leads to lots of “flossing cavities” shown on x-rays. (Each sugar snack/drink has an average “decay time” of 30 minutes after the last snack or drink.)
  • Always try to have a sip of water after every meal/snack!
  • Make sure your child has fluoridated drinking water for additional decay protection.
  • Minimize saliva-sharing activities (sharing utensils) to decrease transferring cavity-causing bacteria. Family members with active dental decay can pass cavity-causing germs to their children, which greatly increases their risk of dental decay. Parents should have their cavities filled to reduce transfer to their children.


The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry

The American Dental Association

The American Academy of Pediatrics

Dr. Joel Richards
Written by Dr. Joel Richards

Dr. Richards is a Pediatric Dental Specialist and owner of Westerville Pediatric Dental in Westerville, Ohio. A graduate of Worthington Christian School and The Ohio State University with extensive training in pediatric dentistry, he loves working with children in a family-oriented approach, and helping them all have a positive and fun dental experience.