July 1st, 2011

Dental Health Issues Take a Bite out of School Attendance

By now, most people have heard of Deamonte Driver, the 12-year-old Maryland boy who died in 2007 after an infection from an untreated tooth abscess spread to his brain. Unfortunately, dental health continues to be a problem for many students, especially those living in poverty, and it takes a huge toll on attendance.  As we work to reduce chronic absence, it’s important to address dental health issues as a key barrier to attendance.

Dental Health: A National Problem

Seven years before Deamonte’s death, the Surgeon General released a report on oral health in America. The information about schoolchildren was staggering: Tooth decay was reported as the most common chronic childhood illness, with 51 million school hours lost to dental-related illness each year. The statistics get even more sobering when it comes to poor children, who suffer from twice as much tooth decay as their more affluent peers and are less likely to have health insurance.

Deamonte’s death drew an immediate and visceral response from Congress. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, recalled his own childhood, writing: “When I was young, I honestly believed that toothaches were just another part of growing up,” He and other Democrats pushed repeatedly until dental care was added to coverage provided by the state Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Still today, dental health issues don’t just hinder attendance, says Dr. David Perry. Cited in a 2010 New America Media article Dr. Perry, former head of the California based Dental Health Foundation, says children with dental health problems show poor academic performance. They are distracted by pain and often have behavioral problems.  Addressing dental health issues in young children would help get them to school, as well as improve their experience in the classroom.

Case study: California

California has begun paying attention to chronic absence.  However, dental health issues remain a barrier to attendance, as evidenced by a 2010 Los Angeles School Attendance Review Board (SARB) PowerPoint, which lists dental health along with homelessness in the top barriers to attendance.

Dr. Perry conducted a study concluding that almost 75 percent of low income elementary students in California have a cavity (along with nearly half the better-off students). According to the California Smile Survey in 2005, two-thirds of California’s third-graders are affected by tooth decay.  Research and teacher testimony show that these students are missing school. Unfortunately, the Children’s Dental Disease Prevention Program, which provided preventive oral health care to more than 300,000 California students, was eliminated in the budget crisis last year.  The Los Angeles SARB suggests several ways that Californians (and anyone else) can address the dental health issues that lead to absence.

Strategies for Improvement

  • Start early: Preventing tooth decay in the first place would save time and money treating problems later. Dr. Perry says that children often don’t see dentists until they’re 3 or 4 years old because parents don’t know that decayed baby teeth can leave behind dangerous infections.
  • Involve parents: Parents are the first line of defense against tooth decay—and against chronic absence. Providing parents with the tools and resources they need to care for their children and get free or reduced price dental care is an important step in preventing tooth decay. And when they see the dentist, parents should be encouraged to schedule appointments before or after school.
  • Collaborate: The Los Angeles SARB works with parents, healthcare professionals, teachers, nurses, social workers, and more to address chronic absence.
  • Know the policy: It’s important to understand the district, state, and national policies that impact attendance and health. The Children’s Dental Health Project has a summary of the oral health care provisions in the recently passed health care reform, as well as other helpful resources.

The bottom line is that dental health should be on the radar of anyone looking to improve school attendance.

Posted in Health, Research | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Dental Health Issues Take a Bite out of School Attendance”

  1. […] children out of school and limit their engagement during class. In this installation in our series on health issues that impact attendance, we explore why schools should have a stake in their […]

  2. Doreen Diehl says:

    Do you have any data providing the percentage/proportion of school absences that are caused by dental caries/need for treatment? If so, please “point me to it” and/or send a link/data via e-mail.


  3. […] is the number one reason for school absences is in low income communities in the U.S.? It’s dental-related illness. I was blown away when I learned this. It was not what those of us working on the Boston Promise […]