“Guardians of the Smile” Teaches Children About Oral Health

Randi Tillman, DMD, MBA, and Dennis Walto



Toothaches, cavities, and gum disease. Proper oral hygiene is, of course, key to avoiding these dental conditions. What is lesser known, however, is the correlation between children’s academic performance and oral health.

Several studies, including a 2015 paper published in the American Journal of Public Health, show that untreated tooth decay in children can cause missed school days, poor academic performance, and even low self-esteem. Children in underserved communities especially lack access to oral health education and services, which can translate into these and other health-related issues later in life.

Three organizations—Guardian, Children’s Health Fund, and Scholastic—have teamed up to improve oral health education for children throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Oral health professionals from Guardian and Children’s Health Fund worked with Scholastic to create educational kits that they have distributed to 5,000 classrooms throughout the state. Each kit, designed for students in grades K-3, serves an entire classroom and includes grade-appropriate lessons and activities that teachers can use to help students learn good oral health habits. The initiative has a strong focus on reaching children in underserved areas through distribution to Title I schools. 

The Pennsylvania initiative is part of the “Guardians of the Smile” national partnership. Supported by a $1 million grant to Children’s Health Fund by Guardian, “Guardians of the Smile” provides dental services and education to children, teaches students about the importance of proper oral hygiene, and aims to instill good habits from an early age.

Because children follow their parents’ example in learning how to take care of their teeth, the program also encourages parents to be the guardian of their children’s smiles. Clinicians play a critical role in educating parents and guardians on how to help their children develop good oral health habits.

Following are tips to share with parents when they visit your office with their child:

  • Let them choose a brush. If a toothbrush with a character or fun color gets their child excited about brushing, that’s a win. Just make sure the brush isn’t too hard or too large.
  • Use toothpaste with fluoride. Children who are 5 or 6 years old only need a pea-sized amount of toothpaste, says the ADA. Young children tend to swallow the paste instead of spitting it out. Parents can use a larger smear for older brushers.
  • Brush twice a day for two minutes. To keep it fun, play a two-minute song, set a timer, or tell a special brush-time story. (The two-minute rule applies to adults too, so they should check their own habits!)
  • Floss once a day. A toothbrush can reach only about 40 percent of tooth surfaces. To clean the areas where teeth touch, parents need to need to floss their children’s teeth.
  • Lend a hand. Children don’t have the motor skills to brush without parent help until age 7 or 8. Even then, parents should supervise to make sure they’re thorough.
  • Schedule a dental exam. Children need a checkup every six months. Parents should set calendar reminders so they don’t forget.

“Guardians of the Smile” also features a website where teachers and parents can find the Scholastic educational resources and materials. Additionally, the site includes information on the “What Makes You Smile?” art and writing contest, which invites students in classrooms across Pennsylvania to share what brings them happiness and makes them smile. Students, teachers, and schools are eligible to win prizes. The prize for the winning school will be an oral health event featuring the Tooth Guardian mascot and educational activities with oversized toothbrushes, teeth, and floss. The contest’s entry deadline is May 24.


This content is for informational purposes only. It is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your child’s dental health, please contact your dentist’s office. The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, New York, NY 2019-77992.

Dr. Tillman is a seasoned healthcare professional with more than 30 years of experience in dental insurance, managed care, and health economics. In 2017, she joined Guardian as chief dental officer, where she is responsible for clinical policy, claims adjudication, oral health and wellness initiatives, and clinical professional training. She earned her DMD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and an MBA from Columbia University.

Mr. Walto is chief executive officer of the Children’s Health Fund. He has more than 25 years of senior leadership experience with not-for-profit organizations in the United States and around the world. Over the past three decades, he has lived and worked in some of the world’s toughest places and built a professional network of leaders, activists, influencers, donors, and decision makers in 43 states and more than 20 countries across the globe. He received his master of arts degree from York St. John University with a thesis on positive organizational development.

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