Tooth decay is the leading chronic disease for children in the United States. It’s also one of the easiest to prevent. As NHPR’s Jason Moon reports, one dental hygienist on the Seacoast is finding fun ways to drive home that message to kids.
“When people go ‘oh, I’ve just have a cavity,’ it’s not just a cavity, it’s a hole in your tooth!”
It’s a special day for these fourth graders at Little Harbor Elementary School in Portsmouth. Cindy Bishop, better known as ‘Miss Cindy’, is here and that means it’s time to talk teeth. Today’s topic: tobacco.
“First of all, here’s my tobacco. I went to the tobacco store and I said ‘can you give me some so I can show the kids?’ He didn’t know I was going to tell everybody never to use his product, but that doesn’t matter.”
The kids sit cross-legged on a rug around Bishop, hanging on every word of dental advice, eager to show they’ve been paying attention.
“What am I brushing off my teeth?
Should I brush just every Wednesday?
Bishop, a dental hygienist with the non-profit Families First healthcare center, has been visiting classrooms like this on the Seacoast for 14 years. At most of the roughly dozen schools she visits, she sees each grade every year, so the kids learn to look forward to her visits.
Fourth grade gets the tobacco talk, second grade gets to simulate tooth decay with vinegar and an egg, and a lot of first graders think she’s the tooth fairy.
“I do tend to be on the dramatic side when I teach my dental presentations but they remember it – I can go to the 7th grade and more than half of the class remembers the egg experiment we do in 2nd grade.”
Bishop even brings her own props in a little cart labeled the Tooth Taxi.
There’s the pair of enlarged teeth: Mr. Clean and Mr. Decay, a tooth fairy wand and tiara, and perhaps the most effective tool of all:
“It’s called the Gross, Disgusting, and Totally Cool Mouth Book.”
The book features a series of graphic photos of tooth decay, each more startling than the last.
But Bishop isn’t here just to gross out the students; she’s here to play an important public health role.
Data she collects from dental exams of the students goes to the state Department of Health and Human Services. They use the information to keep tabs on the level of tooth decay in kids around the state.
Over the last decade and a half, the trend lines for children’s dental health in New Hampshire have been good. The percentage of third graders with untreated cavities in the state has fallen from 22 percent to 8 percent. And in Rockingham County, where Bishop works, that number is down to just 4 percent.
And that’s likely due to the fact that along with the lessons, Bishop gives students dental exams, cleanings and other dental services right there in the school.
“Come close to Miss Cindy, open as wide as you can. Beautiful teeth wow!”
As Bishop examines the students one by one in the hallways of Little Harbor; she looks for signs of tooth decay, gives out stickers, and asks the tough questions.
“Are you brushing and flossing every day?
Um, I haven’t flossed in a while.
Ok is that because you have trouble flossing or you don’t have any floss?
Well it’s partly because I have trouble – because I can’t really get in the back.
Ok, so it’s not a habit yet.”
Not yet, but if ‘Miss Cindy’ has her way, it will be.