4 Tips for Returning Back to (or Starting) Dental Hygiene School

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A feeling of dread settles within you, and tears are falling. The summer break is over, and it’s time to think about dental hygiene classes again. The upcoming return to the campus always comes too quickly. There’s never enough time for the pool, reading for leisure, or afternoon naps. Unfortunately, there are goals to be met, material to cram into your brain, and sleepless nights ahead.

Look on the bright side, though. You are so much closer to obtaining the dental hygiene degree that will allow you to have a license in no time!

There are ample things to consider as you approach a new semester. Some of you may be in your first semester of your first year, and others may be embarking upon the end of the road in their dental hygiene education, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! Regardless, congratulations on making the decision to enter an incredible field that will take you on a plethora of journeys in your future career.

To prepare yourselves for this school year, you may want to reference my previous article, “Prior, Proper, Planning,” to assist you in bringing the best version of yourself to class and clinic. These tips not only will benefit you throughout school but also in your future career. I want to flesh out some concepts from that first article.

First-year Students

It is pivotal to remember you are not alone. Find a person or a group of classmates with whom you feel comfortable studying. Many students believe “they study best by themselves.” I believe there is a case for this assertion in some circumstances; however, as a former student and current dental hygiene instructor, I can attest to the value of working in study groups.

Perhaps a subject or topic is a very comfortable area for you but makes a classmate struggle. You may have the capability to better explain a topic to a peer, while he or she may be able to do the same for you in another area.

In addition, it is shown that students learn in different ways: visual, auditory, and kinesthetically. Working together may allow for better comprehension due to using all three of these learning styles with one another. A tip I share with my students in a study group scenario is to use this time to quiz one another using questions as they do in the game, Jeopardy, using flashcards, or even utilizing Quizlets or Kahoot! in a review of class material. Often, peers might become competitive, and that can likewise drive learning.

Take Care of Your Health

It will be expected that you attend class and clinic; most programs do not allow for absences. Get sleep, eat well, exercise, and hydrate, so that you are healthy enough to attend classes and all of the clinical experiences expected of you.

Yes, there is so much to do and expected of you. Without a rested, energized mind and body, however, you will be unable to bring the best version of yourself to class. It is perfectly acceptable to take a 15-minute walk or an hour-long fitness class. Doing these activities will clear your brain and encourage your body to release endorphins, aka “happy hormones.” Investing in yourself this way is incredibly valuable. Even as an instructor, I have found that my yoga practice and meditation has helped me bring a better version of myself to my classes. You will always be a work in progress, but you are worth it!

How can you get enough sleep when you have quiz after quiz, reading assignment after reading assignment, all the while managing your clinic schedule, and studying for boards? Please, please, please understand that sleep deprivation will not ensure an understanding of the course content.

A clear, energized mind should be your goal. As a side note, instructors prefer that you are awake during lectures because those who sleep tend to be the same classmates who repetitively ask the same questions. Instructors will remember who is attentive and who is slumbering away. As you continue to read, the accompanying nutritional information can assist in setting up your mind for such clarity with the choices of food you are putting in your mouth throughout the day.

You will be educating patients on nutrition, so why shortchange yourself? Planning ahead will benefit you when you are constantly moving from class to class, to off-sites and clinic. There are many options for easy “on-the-go” food choices. A few that come to mind are overnight oats, protein bars, pre-washed/cut fruits, and vegetables, nuts, sandwiches, and salads.

Choosing nutrient-dense foods will give you the brain power and energy that can sustain you throughout a long day of dental hygiene school. Steer clear of simple carbohydrates that you only provide short bursts of energy and then cause crashing. Crashing will not accompany you well in your journey.

Lastly, hydrating is key! Water is vital to your body and will be great for balance. I often see students walking into class with energy drinks, doctored coffees, or sodas that are not beneficial for giving you nutrient-sustaining energy. In large doses, caffeine may cause irritability, impaired calcium metabolism, anxiety, rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and sleep problems.1 These health conditions do not benefit students in the long run.

Setting yourself up to be extremely healthy is going to bring the best version of yourself to school and form healthy habits to model to your future patients.

Find Balance

Finding balance can be challenging yet necessary. Set a schedule for yourself that includes family, school, work, and self-care. First and foremost, if you are able to not work during dental hygiene school, it will make your life much easier. Our policy recommends that students not work during the dental hygiene program.

Typically, students who work tend to take shortcuts and struggle to thrive in school. Please keep in mind this is not always the “rule” but what is often seen. One exception comes to mind; the student tutors in our tutoring center on campus. These types of jobs tend to be more flexible for students.

If you are raising a family, ask for help when needed, befriend a neighbor or family member to take your kids when you need quiet study time. Be sure your significant other is aware that dental hygiene school is much like a full-time job, and it’s a job that comes home with you.

Also, accept that your home life may likely change, which means Saturday morning cleaning may not be the top priority anymore. It is truly fine that things are not “perfect.” Remember, you are striving for balance.

Enjoy the Journey

You must think I am crazy to suggest enjoying a journey that is slated to be some of the toughest months of your life. However, they can and will be some of the most fulfilling months. You have chosen an incredible career path that will challenge you day in and day out. Forming relationships with your faculty, classmates, and patients will be so worth it in the long run.

It truly takes a village to raise up a dental hygienist. Seek out strong relationships with your faculty, as they are valuable resources to you in and out of school. Twenty-three years later, I still have contact with a handful of faculty members who have become mentors to me as I have grown and changed within the field. Without these mentors, I do not feel I would have recognized my strengths and used them to enhance my career to become a writer, presenter, and educator.

The friendships with your peers can be priceless. Just a few days ago, I met up with a classmate I had not seen in 23 years. Let me tell you, it was like we had not skipped a beat. Whenever I am in the presence of peers, I know that I will always learn a new approach or two in dentistry or even be a sounding board for my peer, if that is needed.

It doesn’t just stop there; the stories exchanged during a “girl’s weekend” can be priceless. During one road trip with my best friend from hygiene school, we laughed for about 10 minutes straight about a situation with a patient. Oh my goodness, my stomach hurt and my cheeks were sore from the laughter. Thank goodness for these treasured times.

Relationships are vital to this career. If you come into this field and are not a “people person,” that will change because you cannot take care of another human without being a “people person.” The most important advice I can give is to learn how to build a rapport with your patients, classmates, and faculty, and you will have gained one of the most valuable assets to your repertoire. Through an informal survey I recently conducted, I found time and time again that relationships with patients bring hygienists the most joy. Set yourself up for this experience, and you will have unleashed the gold mine of your career.

I can recall my first day of dental hygiene school, being scared out of my mind when I learned that all but a few of us had dental assisting experience. I thought to myself, “What did I get myself into? I will never know as much as those assistants do!” I also recall going home and crying while learning mesial, distal, occlusal, facial, lingual, and labial because “I was never going to get it!”

Boy, was I wrong? I understood it all in due time. You, too, will gain an understanding in due time. Give yourself grace as you embark upon the challenge of dental hygiene school and allow yourself the opportunity to eventually look back and say, “I did it and mostly with grace!”

Best wishes to all the dental hygiene students loading up their backpacks these next few weeks!


  1. Weisenberger, J. Is Your Kid Over-Caffeinated? Eat Right. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. October 25, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/healthy-eating/is-your-kid-over-caffeinated