Programmes based in primary schools designed to help prevent tooth decay by changing children's behaviour

Improving the dental health of children is a global public health priority. Currently 60% to 90% of 5-year olds worldwide suffer from tooth decay. Understanding how to intervene early with respect to establishing good dental health habits requires an understanding of the key behaviours which either help prevent decay (toothbrushing, twice a day with a fluoride-based toothpaste) or encourage decay (sugar snacking) in children's teeth. Primary schools provide a setting in which behavioural interventions designed to encourage and establish good toothbrushing and snacking habits can be tested.

This review examined how successful the interventions in the suitable studies were in improving dental health in children aged from 4 to 12 years. The latest search of relevant studies was carried out on 18th October 2012.

Interventions were programmes that enabled children to.

∙ Making lasting changes to toothbrushing habits.
∙ Reduce the amount and how often food and drink known to cause tooth decay were consumed.

The trials had to include an educational element which taught skills or gave instructions and one or more accepted techniques to change behaviour.

Out of 1518 possible studies found only four were sufficiently relevant and of high enough quality to be included in this review. One small study showed that children who received the behavioural intervention developed fewer caries during the study. Three studies showed that there was less dental plaque (better oral hygiene) in the children in the behavioural intervention groups. More research is needed to confirm these findings.

The dental health of 4 to 12 year olds is an important issue - reducing the amount of decay in this group would have a positive impact on overall health, particularly for those living in the poorest communities. More high quality research with well designed programmes will help to establish which techniques are most effective at changing child and parent behaviour to encourage good toothbrushing and discourage sugar snacking.

Authors' conclusions: 

Currently, there is insufficient evidence for the efficacy of primary school-based behavioural interventions for reducing caries. There is limited evidence for the effectiveness of these interventions on plaque outcomes and on children's oral health knowledge acquisition. None of the included interventions were reported as being based on or derived from behavioural theory. There is a need for further high quality research to utilise theory in the design and evaluation of interventions for changing oral health related behaviours in children and their parents.

Read the full abstract...

Dental caries is one of the most common global childhood diseases and is, for the most part, entirely preventable. Good oral health is dependent on the establishment of the key behaviours of toothbrushing with fluoride toothpaste and controlling sugar snacking. Primary schools provide a potential setting in which these behavioural interventions can support children to develop independent and habitual healthy behaviours.


To assess the clinical effects of school-based interventions aimed at changing behaviour related to toothbrushing habits and the frequency of consumption of cariogenic food and drink in children (4 to 12 year olds) for caries prevention.

Search strategy: 

We searched the following electronic databases: the Cochrane Oral Health Group's Trials Register (to 18 October 2012), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2012, Issue 4), MEDLINE via OVID (1948 to 18 October 2012), EMBASE via OVID (1980 to 18 October 2012), CINAHL via EBSCO (1981 to 18 October 2012) and PsycINFO via OVID (1950 to 18 October 2012). Ongoing trials were searched for using Current Controlled Trials (to 18 October 2012) and (to 18 October 2012). Conference proceedings were searched for using ZETOC (1993 to 18 October 2012) and Web of Science (1990 to 18 October 2012). We searched for thesis abstracts using the Proquest Dissertations and Theses database (1950 to 18 October 2012). There were no restrictions regarding language or date of publication. Non-English language papers were included and translated in full by native speakers.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials of behavioural interventions in primary schools (children aged 4 to 12 years at baseline) were selected. Included studies had to include behavioural interventions addressing both toothbrushing and consumption of cariogenic foods or drinks and have a primary school as a focus for delivery of the intervention.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two pairs of review authors independently extracted data related to methods, participants, intervention design including behaviour change techniques (BCTs) utilised, outcome measures and risk of bias. Relevant statistical information was assessed by a statistician subsequently. All included studies contact authors were emailed for copies of intervention materials. Additionally, three attempts were made to contact study authors to clarify missing information.

Main results: 

We included four studies involving 2302 children. One study was at unclear risk of bias and three were at high risk of bias. Included studies reported heterogeneity in both the intervention design and outcome measures used; this made statistical comparison difficult. Additionally this review is limited by poor reporting of intervention procedure and design. Several BCTs were identified in the trials: these included information around the consequences of twice daily brushing and controlling sugar snacking; information on consequences of adverse behaviour and instruction and demonstration regarding skill development of relevant oral health behaviours.

Only one included study reported the primary outcome of development of caries. This small study at unclear risk of bias showed a prevented fraction of 0.65 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.12 to 1.18) in the intervention group. However, as this is based on a single study, this finding should be interpreted with caution.

Although no meta-analysis was performed with respect to plaque outcomes (due to differences in plaque reporting between studies), the three studies which reported plaque outcomes all found a statistically significant reduction in plaque in the intervention groups with respect to plaque outcomes. Two of these trials involved an 'active' home component where parents were given tasks relating to the school oral health programme (games and homework) to complete with their children. Secondary outcome measures from one study reported that the intervention had a positive impact upon children's oral health knowledge.