Toothy Tigers won’t let COVID-19 stop children having a healthy smile

An initiative established in Dundee Dental School is working hard to tackle the impact of inequalities on young people’s oral health

21 June, 2021 / indepth
 Shannon Polson  

Tigers is an initiative comprising students from the University of Dundee’s School of Dentistry. Our primary goal is to educate children about the value of their oral health through engaging demonstrations and presentations on how to perform the recommended oral hygiene, along with dietary tips.

The long-term mission is to prevent dental disease, whilst striving to ensure equal opportunities for children in the education of good oral health. We believe it is crucial to educate, guide and encourage children to adopt positive habits from their youngest years to reduce dental fear and set in motion good oral health for life.

A smile is one of our most important assets; we have noticed this now more than ever. With the need to wear masks in public, we now see how significant a smile really is. A healthy smile gives us the confidence to share who we are with others. Cultivating good oral hygiene from a young age provides children with a head start as they learn how to be independent in caring for their oral health.

On coming to Dundee, I wanted to continue voluntary work alongside my studies and becoming part of the Toothy Tigers team gave me the perfect opportunity to help more people. As dental students, we are very fortunate to have been taught oral hygiene and wanted to reach out and share what we have learnt, in order to help address inequalities in oral health.

Simply educating patients when they attend the clinics, potentially will miss the significant number of children who are not regularly brought to the dentist. Throughout the past three years, I have thoroughly enjoyed my involvement in Toothy Tigers, which has allowed me to apply what I have learnt studying dentistry to help others and lead the team through these changing times.

Work in the community

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Toothy Tigers delivered educational workshops to primary school children in Dundee and its most deprived areas. We worked with schools to tailor our presentations and resources to their timetable and class groups. Toothy Tigers enjoyed delivering interactive assembly presentations to many pupils. Teaching oral hygiene knowledge with an element of fun and seeing the number of children who were eager to learn and go home to put into practice what they had leant was very encouraging.

Toothy Tigers in action delivering one of their interactive workshops at a Dundee school

Likewise, days working with a small student to pupil ratio allowed the children to try on and see our uniform up close – and looking at our puppet’s teeth. These interactions were fantastic at breaking down any dental fear. The Toothy Tigers’ presentations place great emphasis on two-way learning with ‘questions for stickers’ and games to consolidate their learning. These teaching methods have been pivotal in teaching basic principles that get overlooked, such as ‘spit don’t rinse’ and not brushing straight after eating and drinking acidic sugary drinks.

Thanks to the kind donations we received, Toothy Tigers have also been able to supply toothbrushes and toothpaste to the pupils at different schools. On one such occasion, our Toothy Tigers team delivered an oral health workshop at a local secondary school for transition pupils, and this was accompanied by colleagues from the Scottish Government-supported Childsmile programme and two sponsors who provided toothbrushes and toothpaste for distribution to pupils.

There was press interest in this event and the following day, a local newspaper published a news story highlighting that deprivation in Dundee could potentially have oral health implications in that school pupils were reporting the use of shared toothbrushes. This resulted in a redoubling of efforts to tackle the effects of deprivation through engagement with the local community in Dundee with a ‘Valentines Smiles’ event.

Toothy Tigers successfully hosted ‘Valentines Smile’ drop-in days in 2019 and 2020 at Meadowside St Paul’s Church. We gave oral health and toothbrushing advice along with friendly chats to the local community. Given that Dundee has one of the highest numbers of children with tooth decay in Scotland, this additional initiative by Toothy Tigers has shown families and children the recommended ways to brush their teeth and encouraged the reduction of sugary snack intake to instil healthy habits for the most deprived people in Dundee. Attendees received a free toothbrush, toothpaste, soup and sandwiches to encourage healthier eating habits and daily brushing. This was a much-needed event for families in the area.

Continuing during the pandemic

The pandemic may have put a halt to our delivery of in-person workshops, however, this did not stop Toothy Tigers from continuing its duty of educating young populations in good oral health. With routine dental visits and check-ups being on hold, Toothy Tiger’s goal to promote good oral health became even more important. We needed to adapt, creating new ways of delivering these messages. Voiceover PowerPoint presentations and an in-class/take-home comic strip resource for distribution by the teachers, in addition to optional Zoom meetings, ensured teachers were kept well-informed on how they could help students maintain their oral hygiene in these challenging times.

An in-class/ take-home comic strip resource by Robbie Macoy

Toothy Tiger’s commitment to continuing its mission during lockdown saw it gain a commendation in the 2021 Stephen Fry award for Public Engagement as part of the ‘Science@Home Kits’ programme, a digital home learning programme. The students’ initiative joined in with this partnership set up by Dundee Science Centre along with Dundee City Council Education Department, Dundee Bairns and Dundee University to help respond to the needs of the community during pandemic. Toothy Tigers ensured toothbrushes, toothpaste and the educational comic strip we produced in coordination with a medical art student were delivered to 350 children, along with their activity kits and foodbank deliveries under the ‘Science@Home Kits’ scheme.

The Toothy Tigers team, comprising Clement Seeballuck, Priyanka Shah, Cara Marcuccilli, Iona Goldie, Shannon Polson, Faizaan Rafiq, and Peter Mossey.

Toothy Tigers are committed to discovering new ways to reach out and educate young people both locally and further afield, especially during these times. Most recently, we have been collaborating with The International Dental Federation (FDI) for the Comprehensive Cleft Care Programme. Using the evidence-based information provided by the FDI, we designed and produced leaflets that will soon be distributed internationally. Toothy Tigers played an important role in developing graphics and information tailored to audiences of different age groups. Additionally, we produced a standardisation for the different age groups leaflets and the FDI are now taking these into final development.

Looking to the future

Toothy Tigers cannot wait to inspire more children in its engaging classroom workshops soon. Until then, we are continuing our support for the ‘Science@Home Kits’ scheme over the coming summer and summer camps. Additionally, we will continue to enjoy exploring new avenues for widening our reach to encourage good oral hygiene habits across communities. And seeking further opportunities to collaborate with other organisations to tackle inequality together.

Shannon Polson is studying dentistry at the University of Dundee.

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