Michelle Nicholas helps two of her students find their toothbrushes from the tray.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — In a football game, the two-minute warning signals that the end of the game is near. In reality, two minutes is a really, really, REALLY long time.
Just ask the preschoolers in the North Adams Public Schools Prekindergarten Program, who are the first to begin a new initiative in which kids brush their teeth after breakfast and lunch right at school.
"That's been the hardest thing," admitted preschool teacher Michelle Nicholas, who twice daily shepherds pairs of tots into the bathroom, asks them if they can remember which color toothbrush belongs to them, lets them choose between pink and blue toothpaste, and helps them through the two-minute process of scrubbing their little pearly whites.
To help make those two minutes go more quickly, Nicholas brings an iPad into the bathroom and uses the Colgate SmileMakers app, which plays a catchy little tune while counting down in large numbers that the children can see. Halfway through, the kids switch from brushing their bottom teeth to their top teeth, and at the end they brush their tongues.
"Teaching them front, back and side ties right into our curriculum," said Nicholas, a mother of two who has taught preschool for 12 years. "This is wonderful."
That was the goal of the program, initiated by local dentist Jenny Citrin. Citrin said that upon graduating from Tufts Dental School, she knew she wanted to do something in the community to promote oral health, something that is stressed in Tufts' mission statement.
She created the project while participating in a leadership program of Landmark, an international training and development company known for offering its flagship course The Landmark Forum; part of the coursework was to create a project that benefits the community.
"There's a big issue in the area with high cavity rate and not knowing how to brush their teeth," Citrin said. That, coupled with the fact that the kids were eating in school with no way to brush afterward, spurred her into action to create a program that would introduce supervised brushing into school.
So she approached Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas and Maris Owczarski, a health administrator at Brayton Elementary School, and pitched the idea of a pre-K through Grade 5 in-school brushing program, starting with the preschoolers.
"They were on board," said Citrin, who added that Nicholas was particularly thrilled when approached about adding the brushing into her preschool classroom. "It was the one thing for her that was missing."
After finding their toothbrush, the children choose from blue or pink toothpaste.
For now, the program has been privately funded for one year and is fully implemented in all eight pre-kindergarten classrooms. Citrin said she hopes to secure funding to expand the program to include all North Adams kids up to Grade 5, and in the meantime is working with students from both Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to do some preparations with books and discussions on oral health.
Back in Nicholas' classroom, her enthusiasm for her young charges' dental health was obvious. She asked them if they had brushed over the weekend at home, and she gently and patiently led them through the process a proper brushing, sometimes verbally guiding and sometimes lending an actual helping hand.
"OK, we're on our bottoms," she directed two preschoolers, coaxing them into changing the angle of their toothbrush. The children readily accepted the directions, something that can be attributed to the preparations Nicholas did before the toothbrushes themselves came the first week of March.
"It was a lot of pre-teaching," said Nicholas, who said she found an app that allowed the kids to virtually practice brushing properly. And then came the supplies.
"We picked out our toothbrushes and got to put our names on them," she said.
The countdown app is a big hit, she said, as one little boy danced his way through the two minutes. As one little girl walked back to the classroom, she said to Nicholas, "I really like that song." The two continued a conversation, and when Nicholas returned to the bathroom to rave about the program, she said she just loved conversations like that.
"It made my day when one of my little ones said, 'My mom put the app on my Kindle,'" she said. "It's just simply wonderful."
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