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If your child is afraid of the dentist or they’re just unfamiliar with dental visits, the thought of bringing them in for an exam or treatment can be a little nerve wracking. As a parent, you might be worried that your child will refuse to cooperate, start crying or throw a tantrum. 

Well, Dr. Roya Pilcher isn’t just a Washington, DC kids’ dentist she’s also a mom. So, she completely understands. In fact, Dr. Roya developed her own behavior management technique called S.A.F.E.® While the technique seems simple, it’s super effective for reducing dental anxiety in kids and helping them start off dental appointments on the right foot. 

What is Behavior Management?

It’s completely normal for a child to be anxious about going to the dentist, especially for those first few visits. One of the benefits of seeing a pediatric dentist like Dr. Roya is that, after dental school, pediatric dentists undergo specialty training in treating infants, children and teens, including those with special health care needs. During their training, they not only gain expertise in the unique oral health needs of growing smiles, they also learn behavior management techniques.

Behavior management techniques are strategies pediatric dentists use to establish communication, reduce fear and help a child develop a positive attitude towards the dentist and oral health. This allows the dentist to deliver quality care in a way that’s safe and efficient. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, behavior management, or behavior guidance, is “meant to develop and nurture the relationship between the patient and doctor, which ultimately builds trust and allays fear and anxiety.”

Techniques include things like using kid-friendly terms, positive reinforcement and tell-show-do (we tell the patient what we’re going to do and show them the tools we’ll be using before actually doing it). When children are informed and comfortable, they’re more willing to cooperate.

What is the S.A.F.E. Technique?

Dr. Roya took things a step further. Using the principles of behavior management, she created the S.A.F.E. technique. It stands for Sequential Approach to Familiarize and Engage pediatric patients. S.A.F.E. is structured as a game with each step serving a purpose and building on the previous step (you can see it in action here). 

The approach, which Dr. Roya uses when treating the patients at Smile Valley Pediatric Dentistry, successfully reduces dental anxiety in kids and helps them understand the tools she’ll be using and the procedures she’ll be performing. It also gives them a sense of control and engages them in visits, which goes a long way in relieving jitters and getting kids excited about going to the dentist. 

How Does the S.A.F.E. Technique Work?

Let’s walk through the technique using a toddler’s dental exam and cleaning as an example:

  1. Dr. Roya will come in and introduce herself to the patient and parents and ask the patient if they want to play a game. She’ll show the patient stickers and a prize and explain that after completing each step, the child will earn a sticker. When the visit is finished, they’ll get a bigger prize. 
  1. Once the little one understands the concept, Dr. Roya will let them pick out the sticker they want first. She’ll then give them a colorful, child-sized toothbrush and ask them to show her how they brush their teeth. When the child demonstrates how they brush, they’ll win their first sticker. 
  1. Dr. Roya will ask the child to pick out their next sticker. She’ll tell the kiddo they’ll get the sticker after they let her brush their teeth. She’ll ask them to open their mouth and then she’ll gently and quickly brush their teeth using the colorful toothbrush. This helps the patient get used to opening their mouth and letting the dentist touch their teeth. It also scores them their second sticker. 
  1. After congratulating the patient on all of their stickers, Dr. Roya will introduce them to the tools she’ll be using. She’ll show her mirror to the child and ask if she can use it to look at their teeth. She’ll then bring out her “tooth counter” and ask if she can show them what it feels like on their hand. If that goes smoothly, she’ll ask if she can use it on one tooth. 

    When that’s finished, Dr. Roya will give the child fun sunglasses to wear and introduce them to her special dentist’s light. With the light turned on, she’ll have them open their mouth and she’ll use the tooth counter to count all of their teeth. Throughout the whole process, Dr. Roya talks to the child in a lighthearted, engaging way and narrates everything she’s doing. This wins the child their third sticker.
  1. Now, Dr. Roya will remind the patient of their bigger prize, which they’ll earn after their dental cleaning. She’ll ask if she can show the child her electric toothbrush. She’ll let them look at it and then she’ll turn it on. Then, she’ll ask if she can use the toothbrush on their hand. After demonstrating on their hand, she’ll use the electric toothbrush on one tooth. 

    Dr. Roya will also introduce the child to “Mr. Thirsty,” her suction tool, and ask if she can show them how it will drink up all of their spit. She’ll turn it on and, again, use it on their hand, before progressing to using it in their mouth. When the child is ready, she’ll brush their teeth using a tasty toothpaste and then gently floss. As she’s brushing and flossing, she encourages the child and explains exactly what she’s doing.
  1. When the exam and cleaning are done, Dr. Roya will give the patient their bigger prize, usually a toy like a rubber ducky. If needed, she’ll then introduce the child to her “tooth vitamins” (fluoride) and paint it on their teeth. This will earn the child one last sticker. 

What if a Child Doesn’t Respond to the S.A.F.E. Technique?

Many kids love getting to play a game at the dentist’s office. Even in cases where a child needs treatment, such as a filling, the S.A.F.E. approach is still effective, particularly when combined with our dental technology and techniques, which make all types of treatment more comfortable and squirm-free. 

Dr. Pilcher is a certified children’s yoga instructor and practices yoga herself. So, she also incorporates mindfulness, meditation and relaxation techniques into her practice. This is helpful for children with a lot of dental anxiety. 

But every child is unique and Dr. Roya tailors her approach to their needs. During her residency, she gained a deep understanding of child development and psychology. As a dentist for kids, she’s flexible and has a range of techniques to pull from.

Sometimes, though, no matter what behavior management techniques we use, a child is unable to safely get necessary dental treatment. Maybe they have a special health care need or they’re very young and need extensive work. In cases where behavior management isn’t effective, sedation dentistry is also an option. 

At Smile Valley Pediatric Dentistry, we offer nitrous oxide sedation for kids, as well as IV sedation. When a child requires IV sedation, we bring in an experienced, fully licensed anesthesiologist to administer the sedation. We also use monitoring equipment and take all precautions for maximum safety. 

Dr. Roya will evaluate your child’s health history and needs and help you decide on the best option for your family. Regardless of the approach, we’ll make sure your child is relaxed, comfortable and safe, so we can help keep their smile healthy and strong. 

Connect With a Friendly, Fun Kids’ Dentist in Washington, DCTo experience the S.A.F.E. technique for yourself and see how we make dental visits a fun, positive experience, schedule an appointment at our Spring Valley pediatric dental practice today!

Dr. Roya Pilcher

Author Dr. Roya Pilcher

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