As COVID has brought about some shifts in the practical life activities that traditionally happen in our early childhood classrooms, we thought we would combine a “materials spotlight” with a little “how to at home.”

It’s important to remember that when we introduce toothbrushing, we’re not only helping young children develop lifelong oral hygiene habits, but we’re also helping them develop a sense of capability. As parents and caregivers, we partner in the process so that our children don’t become dependent upon us for a necessary skill.

Slow It Down

In showing and supporting toothbrushing, we want to really isolate and slow down each part of the process. As adults, we often move quickly through the activity. We don’t have to think about the separate steps of what we’re doing because we can rely upon habit and muscle memory. Young children, on the other hand, are consciously working through each component. Thus, we have to be very intentional about demonstrating the procedure. It’s important that we also highlight what we call “points of interest” which are like little benchmarks that focus children’s attention and help them remember key components.

Introduce It When It Makes Sense

As with all practical life activities, we want the experience to be meaningful and embedded in a real-life context. Thus, try to introduce toothbrushing when it makes sense: after eating! After enjoying a snack or a meal, for example, invite your child to the sink to brush their teeth. Make a point of noticing that we’ve just eaten and want to clean our teeth, so he or she makes the connection of why we’re going to use a toothbrush.

Show How It’s Done

Depending upon your child and their age, you might have them try each step right after you show them how it’s done. Or if your child is a little older, you may show a series of steps and then invite him or her to try.

Start by modeling taking your own toothbrush out of the holder and placing it on an empty tray or next to the sink. Small travel-size toothbrushes work well for children. The toothbrushes can have a case or small enclosure for the toothbrush head. After your child takes their toothbrush and puts it on the tray, select a toothpaste container and demonstrate how to open and close it. Because we want the child to only use a small amount of toothpaste, it can be helpful to prepare individual portions of toothpaste. Contact lens holders work quite well for this.

After demonstrating how to select, then open and close the toothpaste container, place it on the tray with your child’s toothbrush and invite him or her to select their own toothpaste container, open and close it, then place it on the tray. Closing the toothpaste container is one critical detail in this process. We aren’t ready to use the toothpaste yet, so having the container closed helps communicate that we aren’t ready to use toothpaste. We’re just making sure that the child knows how to access the toothpaste.

Next, choose a small glass or cup and fill it with water from the faucet to about a quarter full. Ideally, the glass looks different from regular drinking glasses because this water will be used for rinsing rather than drinking. Since we often brush our teeth in the bathroom at home, small stainless-steel cups work well. Place the glass on the tray next to your toothbrush and toothpaste tube. Ask your child to repeat the process.

Now that everything is set up, open the toothpaste container and leave it open on the tray. Pick up your toothbrush and place some toothpaste into the bristles. It can be helpful to show how to hold the toothpaste container with one hand while getting toothpaste on the bristles of the brush. Then place the toothbrush down on the tray and use both hands to close the toothpaste container. Then have your child take a turn preparing their toothbrush with toothpaste.

Demonstrate How to Brush Teeth

The materials are ready, so it’s time to demonstrate brushing teeth! This is best done slowly and with a wide-open mouth. We start on one side, perhaps the left, brushing our top teeth with clear, deliberate downward strokes. We then pause and brush underneath those top teeth. Pausing again, we then move to the back of our left top teeth with downward strokes. Staying on the same side, we brush our left bottom teeth with upward strokes, then the tops of those teeth, then the backs. We pause between each section and repeat on our right side.

At the end, we brush our tongue lightly. Then we place our toothbrush onto the tray. With almost a bit of exaggeration, we make sure the child sees that we need to spit the toothpaste into the sink. After ridding our mouth of the excess toothpaste, we then pick up the glass and take some water into our mouth. We swish the water around and around, and then spit right into the center of the sink, repeating if necessary. It’s nice to also have a small cloth or hand towel to model drying our mouth after this process.

We rinse the toothbrush under the faucet for a few seconds and tap the toothbrush on the side of the sink to get excess water off the brush. Then we return our toothbrush to its holder. Once you’re finished demonstrating, ask your child to have a turn with the toothbrushing, spitting, and rising. At the end, tell your child they can brush their teeth whenever they’d like to clean their teeth.

In School

Under a classroom setting, we follow the same steps in setting everything up with some differences. Instead of a regular sink, we have indoor sink or hand washing station, and we’ll often use a small pitcher of water and small glasses initially turned upside down. Right before doing the demonstration of how to brush teeth, we get a glass or cup and pour a small amount of water from the pitcher into it so that the cup is about 1/4 full. We then place the cup on the tray with our toothbrush and invite the child to pour water into their own cup and place it on the tray.

Depending upon the child’s engagement while presenting this activity, we may determine different points of interest by using a pause, slightly exaggerating the movement, or merely showing our own intense interest. Some possible points of engagement for toothbrushing can include getting toothpaste on the toothbrush, the downward or upward brushing strokes, swishing water to rinse our mouth, spitting into the sink, or tapping the toothbrush on the side of the indoor sink. One of the gifts of Montessori is that we can tailor each activity to a child’s needs and temperament.

Another key difference in a school setting is that the adult will model and allow the child to practice brushing teeth independently. At home, however, it’s best to establish an understanding that at certain times, for example in the morning and in the evening, mom or dad will be taking a turn to help ensure the child’s teeth are clean. For example, during the evening routine, your child gets a chance to clean their teeth, and then they know you will then do a final toothbrushing for them. This can be done by putting your hand over the child’s and continuing the brushing process after the child is done, or by just asking your child to hand you their toothbrush when they’re done so that you can have a turn brushing their teeth.

Build Your Child’s Independence and Self-Reliance

The important thing to remember is that we want to support young children as they build the manual dexterity necessary for this important self-care skill. Just like we wouldn’t do all the coloring for them when they want to use crayons, we don’t want to do all the toothbrushing for them when they’re learning to use the toothbrush. We want to send the message that they’re capable and can practice cleaning their teeth. At home, we also want to make sure they understand that because dental hygiene is so important, mom or dad will also have a turn making sure their teeth are clean.

We hope you have great success at home! Let us know how it goes. And if you need some inspiration, you are always welcome to schedule a visit to see how we support children’s development of self-care skills, as well as their sense of capability.

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