HOW to start a program or improve on existing efforts

HOW do you go about increasing access to oral health education, prevention, and services for our school-age children, once you understand WHY there is a great need? There is no ‘right’ way or place to begin – it depends on your community’s needs, existing programs, opportunities for partnerships, policies, regulations, and the will to start somewhere.

There are many critical partners and approaches to HOW. You may be at the beginning of the oral health journey, or you may already provide some services but wish to add additional services or may need to improve the services. The Playbook looks at the national, state, and local resources that support the HOW, with suggestions for working with schools, communities, and engaging families in the school dental program. Approaches range from individual-level oral health care to a broader, public health perspective.

Schools play a significant and unique role in HOW we approach improving access to oral health and improving outcomes for all our children. The range of services that schools can provide or support may address the needs of individuals as well as families and communities. Schools, school nurses, teachers, and school-based health centers (SBHCs) can provide oral health education. School-wide oral health screenings can serve as a baseline for the oral health needs you will address in your school-based dental program. If your school has a school-based health center (SBHC), adding dental services is a natural extension of the primary care services offered by the center.

Schools can become the center for multiple opportunities to improve the oral health and overall health of the students, increasing their chances to stay in school and achieve. Successful school-based oral health programs benefit from thorough planning, community collaboration, and partnerships between schools and health providers to ensure the program meets the needs of students and their families. The Playbook section below describes the benefits and challenges of school-based dental programs, and factors to consider that will help shape your program. The national, state and local resources offer best practices drawn from successful school dental programs throughout the country.

Benefits of school-based oral health program and services:

  • Teaching the importance of oral health to overall health and wellness
  • Developing life-long oral health habits
  • Early screening and identification of oral health conditions
  • Ability to provide hygiene services to improve oral health, with the potential to treat oral health problems
  • Barrier-free access to oral health care within the school environment; particularly for communities that have scarce access to oral health providers
  • Parents can remain at work while children stay in school
  • Ability to improve overall community oral health.

Common challenges of school-based oral health programs:

  • Families and educators understanding the importance of regular oral health care
  • Care coordination with community dental practitioners
  • Obtaining signed consent forms
  • Working with schools to develop an efficient program that contributes to the learning environment
  • Identifying the level of oral health services that are needed and designing an appropriate program
  • Potential state or local policy issues that may impact the provision of services
  • Scheduling and funding challenges to ensure program sustainability.