3 tips for managing pediatric patients

group of children

We know one of the most important aspects of your role is working with patients. Those who work in general dental practices, and especially assistants in orthodontic and pediatric dental practices, have the pleasure — and at times, the challenge — of working with young patients. Many of you have told us what a rewarding experience working with children can be.

“In pediatric dentistry, nothing compares to the trust the patients put in you, and to seeing their reaction after the procedures are finished,” Christina G. says. “They give you the biggest smiles and thank-yous. I see it every day.”

Here, we share advice about how to ensure a tot’s time in the chair goes smoothly. We hope you find these tips useful!

1. Use kid-friendly language

It’s common for children to feel nervous about visiting the dental office. After all, the sights and sounds can be scary at first! For very young patients who cannot talk yet, using nonverbal communication, like smiling and calm body language, can relax them.

With patients between the ages of 6 and 12, communicating verbally with kid-friendly and, if needed, less scary language can make all the difference. For instance, saying “picture of your teeth” rather than “x-ray,” and “special toothbrush, like a spin brush” rather than “drill.”

Depending on a dental practice’s philosophy, sometimes a “reframing” technique works well to calm young patients. Dawn W. recalls a time when a young patient was scared of a tooth extraction, and how she reframed the procedure made all the difference. “I told him he was just going to get plaque off his tooth to make it pretty,” she shares. “The patient calmed down, and then I told him, ‘Guess what? That tooth the dentist was cleaning fell out on its own!’ He raised his arms and said, ‘I am so proud of myself! This is the best day ever!’”

2. Use a visual or audio aid

When we’re feeling anxious, sometimes the best thing to do is to read a book, watch a television show or listen to music to lower our stress level. These things can be great distractions. Similarly, for children between the ages of 6 and 12, using visual aids or telling a story in the dental office can be effective behavioral-guidance techniques.

Sherri N. agrees images from their favorite stories can be comforting for her patients. “For the younger kids, I will print out a coloring book page featuring their favorite character.”

Sally S. never hesitates to break out into song. “When the doctor is ready to give our young patients an injection, I start to sing a Disney song to them,” she says. “This way, their attention is toward me, and most don’t really know that they have gotten an injection.”

3. Tell-show-do

Sometimes patients in the 6- to 12-year-old age group can be so nervous that they’ll shed tears. This is likely because they’re worried or uncertain about what’s going to happen next. For any age, the unknown can be scary! But we also all know that knowledge is power. Clearly explaining to patients what to expect, including a demonstration before the procedure is performed, can help to dry eyes and ease fears. This is called the Tell-Show-Do method.

JoLottie S. recalls a time when an 8-year-old patient needed a filling. He began to cry because he was afraid of the drill. “If he had cried any longer, I would have been crying,” she says. “My doctor explained that most of the drilling was a lot of noise and showed him the drill. After it was all said and done, the patient seemed to be thinking the drilling wasn’t so bad after all.”

Morgan B. shares that parents often say they are impressed by how well the Tell-Show-Do method works. “Usually, after the procedure is finished, they tell us they wish they had gone to an office like ours when they were children, because it would have changed how they feel about going to the dentist,” she says.

Another great tip: At the end of the appointment, give the patient a small token or reward such as a sticker or a small toy, as positive reinforcement.

Want to learn more?

Consider checking out the DALE Foundation's Behavioral Guidance and Management for the Pediatric Dental Patient course. This interactive, online course will help you learn more about pediatric and special needs patients and will show you how to respond when faced with challenging behaviors — and you can earn 6 CDE credits upon successful completion. Learn more!