Oral Health and School Performance: Is There a Link?

Oral Health and School Performance

The connection between oral health and your child’s performance in class may not be obvious at first.  However, a child’s health and overall well being can have a major effect on every other aspect of their life. As the years pass, issues related to insufficient oral care can compound as children age.

How does Oral Health Affect School Performance?

Poor oral health can affect more than just your child’s teeth.  Bad dental hygiene and proper oral care can cause distracting discomfort or even pain that will have a negative impact on your child’s performance at school. It can even affect their social life, as one of the most common signs of poor oral health is bad breath, and children can often shun or mock other children at school if they smell bad.

Furthermore, if a minor oral health issue is left untreated, the problem can quickly turn into a much more serious problem such as tooth decay or even tooth loss. The early signs of cavities can easily go unnoticed if your child does not get regular dental checkups, especially as children often will not tell you about oral health problems they are experiencing for fear of getting in trouble.

To avoid these issues, it is absolutely vital for children to learn good oral hygiene habits and attend regular dental checkups.

How Pain Distracts The Brain

It is difficult for anyone to concentrate on challenging mental tasks when they are feeling pain, especially a school-aged child. A recent study conducted by the American Public Health Association found that children who are experiencing oral pain or other problems were falling behind their peers in terms of their performance in class.

Any kind of ongoing pain can be very distracting, and both physically and mentally exhausting for the person suffering it. In addition to reducing your child’s ability to focus on their work, this can also make them more irritable. It can increase the chance that they act out in class or have negative social interactions with their classmates.

Poor Oral Health Also Means Missing school

Children who have dental issues because of poor oral hygiene can often have to miss more school visits to the dentist, which naturally can lead to a drop in grades due to not being present in class to learn important parts of their course. According to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, children with poor oral health were 90% more likely to miss more than a week of school per year than other children who did not experience any oral health problems.

Absences can also affect a child’s performance in school because of the disruption to their routine. While a regular schedule leaves your child’s mind free to concentrate on their work in class, if a child is frequently leaving school early or missing entire days for dentist appointments, they will always be partly focused on that instead of their lessons.

Signs Your Child’s Oral Health is Impacting Their School

Children do not always tell their parents about the pain or discomfort they are experiencing as a result of poor oral care. They may fear that they will be punished for failing to brush their teeth, unaware of your concern for their dental health. As a result, they may not want to tell you about problems that they think might be related to not following your instructions regarding their oral hygiene. This means you might not find out about a problem until it has become a much more serious and painful issue for them.

Furthermore, children do not always understand why they are experiencing pain or poor health, and therefore will not mention it. Others simply might not know how to communicate the problem they are having, especially if they have not received any education in oral health and the potential results of poor oral health. Because of these problems, it is very important to look out for the early signs of an oral health issue and to teach your child to tell you if they spot any of those signs themselves. These signs can include:

  • Tender, swollen, or bleeding gums
  • Pain when chewing or swallowing
  • Bad breath
  • Discolored teeth
  • Frequent or persistent ulcers or sores
  • Teeth that are highly sensitive to temperature
  • Swollen face or cheeks
  • Painful, clicking or locking jaw

When these symptoms are not given attention with a follow up to a dentist, they will most likely lead to more severe problems.  It may not seem like a dental emergency today, but handling the issues now can prevent a lot of pain for the child and less cost for the parent in the future.

School-Based Programs to Promote Oral Health

Because oral health can play such an important role in children’s education at school, some schools are adopting health programs aimed at improving the oral health of the children attending their school. These typically include:

  • Education about oral health, how to maintain good oral hygiene, and encouraging children to adopt healthier behaviors regarding their dental health.
  • Basic oral health procedures to promote better dental hygiene while the children are at school, such as a regular fluoride mouth rinse to strengthen their teeth.
  • Oral health screenings to provide early warning if a child shows signs of needing dental care.
  • Applying dental sealant on children’s teeth to help to protect their teeth from decay caused by bacteria.
  • Raising awareness about the effects that sugar can have on children’s teeth and oral health, and helping them to choose alternative foods and snacks with less sugar that are less harmful to their teeth.

Good Oral Health Habits Start at Home

While these school programs can help to support your child’s dental health while they are at school, good oral hygiene habits need to be established and maintained at home if they are going to become part of your child’s normal routine. This includes brushing at least twice a day with a fluoride-based toothpaste, and ideally also rinsing and/or brushing after each meal of the day.

Of course, it is not always possible for your child to brush their teeth after every meal, especially when they are at school. Encouraging the habit of always drinking and rinsing with water can help to wash out at least some of the bacteria and the sugars that they feed on from their mouth in between opportunities to brush their teeth properly.

Your child’s eating habits are also a crucial part of their oral health routine. Frequently snacking on candy, chocolate, and other foods that are high in sugar is naturally not advised. Bear in mind that most fruit contains a lot of sugar and acids that both damage your child’s teeth, so rinsing or brushing after eating these is just as important as doing so after eating other sugary foods like candy.

When your child is at home, you can make sure that they rinse and brush after enjoying sugary snacks, and you can control how much they eat. However, you cannot do this as easily when your child goes to school. If they are already in the habit of eating sugary snacks then they will continue to do so at school, where they cannot clean their teeth afterward. Getting your kids used to healthier snacks at home will help them to make healthier food choices when they are not at home.

Additional Resources:

If your child has a fear of dentists, educate yourself on how to help them overcome dentophobia.

Read about ways teens can cope with braces.

Is it safe for children to chew gum?

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