Our Oral Health Campaign

Adriann Hawkins

"When it comes to oral health messaging, there's no such thing as redundancy." – John Welby, director of the Oral Health Literacy Campaign, Maryland Department of Hygiene and Mental Health

Children's Dental Health Month is a time to refocus attention on the number one chronic condition among young children—tooth decay. For the Office of Head Start (OHS), preventing early childhood caries among enrolled Head Start children is an important issue. Over the years, OHS has sought to establish a dental home for every enrolled child and pregnant woman. A dental home provides an accessible, continuous source of preventive and treatment services, as well as family guidance on oral health development and healthy oral health habits.

OHS continues to search out innovative ways to bridge relationships with the dental community and provide Head Start grantees with evidence-based oral health messages that can be shared with staff and families. Through these efforts, grantees have increased the number of providers serving Head Start and Early Head Start children. They also have increased the oral health knowledge of staff, children, and families, and promoted oral health habits in the classroom and at home.

Program staff are key to Head Start's oral health work. They play a critical role in informing OHS about the oral health education needs of children and families enrolled in Head Start. Health managers, family service workers, and teachers continue to engage parents in making oral health a part of their overall health.

John Welby is the director of the Oral Health Literacy Campaign with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He is experienced at creating oral health messages that resonate with families. Welby developed Healthy Teeth, Healthy Kids, an oral health literacy social marketing campaign for Medicaid-insured, Medicaid-eligible, or underinsured mothers of children ages birth to 6. For 10 weeks in 2014, the Spanish language version of this campaign, Dientes Sanos, Niños Sanos, targeted Latinas in Baltimore and the surrounding areas. Messages were broadcast through radio commercials, distributed in print materials, and spread through community outreach. Pre- and post-campaign surveys were conducted. Post-campaign survey results showed that, unaided, 91 percent of the women recalled at least one of the Dientes Sanos, Niños Sanos messages after the campaign. Ninety-two percent recalled that their child should go to the dentist by age 1, and more than four times the number of children had received fluoride varnish as a result of the campaign. By all accounts, the targeted oral health campaign was a success.

On a different scale, Head Start and Early Head Start programs engage in their own oral health campaign. Through daily interactions, staff members promote health messages with families. Using existing oral health curricula, such as Cavity Free Kids, or creating tailored materials, oral health messages are shared through posters, newsletters, group and one-on-one family meetings, as well as story time. These messages are reinforced while children brush their teeth in the classroom, visit the dentists, and eat healthy snacks. No matter how large or small the audience, the oral health messages are the same:

  • A child can lead a life free from cavities!
  • Children should visit the dentist by age 1 or eruption of their first tooth
  • Children's teeth should be brushed twice a day with fluoride toothpaste
  • Everyone should drink fluoridated tap water

John Welby shared some of his lessons learned through the Healthy Teeth, Healthy Kids campaign. Some of the most relevant for Head Start are:

  • Use a medium that will get the attention of the specific audience. Newsletters and brochures can be just as successful as texting, tweeting on Twitter, and posting on Facebook.
  • There's no such thing as redundancy. Repeat the message as much as possible and in as many different ways as possible.
  • Keep it simple. The message should be brief and easy to understand.
  • Use language the audience understands; for example, use "cavities" not "caries."
  • Don't forget the element of emotion. Personal stories and face-to-face contact is impactful.

As Children's Dental Health Month comes to an end, OHS' work to improve children's oral health forges on. New pregnant women, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers enroll in Head Start every program year. Staff members continue to dialogue with families about fluoride varnish applications, limiting sugary snacks, and refraining from putting an infant to bed with a bottle. More dentists are also needed to treat Medicaid-insured children so that every Head Start child has an oral health provider. So, our work is not yet over; our oral health campaign must continue.

Marco Beltran is a Program Specialist and Adriann Hawkins is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Office of Head Start.

Our Oral Health Campaign. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2016. English.

Last Reviewed: February 2016

Last Updated: February 26, 2016