Ask Kara RDH: Student Feeling Overwhelmed with Seeing Patients in Clinic

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I’m a student and am just starting seeing patients in clinic. I am having a hard time remembering how to find the correct working end of an instrument, detecting calculus, and all of it! Please tell me this is something that will come easier with more experience and time because I’m being very hard on myself and am overwhelmed!

With all honesty, I can assure you it gets easier with more experience and time! Have confidence in knowing that your instructors wouldn’t allow you to see patients if you weren’t ready. When I think back to when I first saw patients in clinic, I felt like I was being thrown to the wolves. However, looking back I now understand why I felt that way and why we started seeing patients when we did. This, even though I thought at the time, it was too soon to see patients. Frankly, even if we waited to see patients months later, it still would have felt too soon, and I still would have felt lost.

Pushing yourself to be the best you can be is great, but don’t be too hard on yourself, especially when it comes to making a mistake or if you do something not exactly perfect at first. We all have to learn, so know that making mistakes, not remembering, and not being perfect at first, is part of that process. At first, I found myself getting very frustrated when I wouldn’t get things correct or remember something right off the bat. I would get frustrated, stressed, have anxiety, you name it, I felt it! Once I learned to slow down and give myself the time to think and work through the issue I was having, instead of going to an instructor immediately, not only my confidence level but my skill level grew by leaps and bounds. Simply put, by taking the time to figure things out on my own and allowing myself not to be “perfect” right off the bat, allowed me to better learn from my mistakes or confusion I was having, instead of leading to feelings of being overwhelmed.

I suggest the same to you. Allow yourself the time to figure things out when you are stuck, like with what working end of an instrument to use on which tooth surface. If you find yourself becoming frustrated or more confused, then ask an instructor for help. Trying to figure things out on your own first, helps with the valuable skill of critical thinking. Critical thinking may not seem important now, however, once you have graduated hygiene school and are licensed, you will need to think critically. Learning this skill and practicing it early on, will help you immensely in your hygiene career.

If you continue to feel overwhelmed and feel like you aren’t “getting things” as fast as you think you should, don’t hesitate to talk to one of your instructors about it. I approached the awesome Director of my hygiene program because I was feeling this way. She gave me advice I will never forget; she said to take it day by day. She explained that each day you will find yourself getting a little bit better. As you begin to look back week after week and even month after month, you will notice a huge change in your skill level. Chair positions, using the correct working end of an instrument, and all the concepts you are learning, will become like second nature. It takes repetition, time, and most of all, patience with yourself. This also applies to when you first begin practicing as a newly graduated hygienist.

Another thing I struggled with was constructive criticism. The sooner you are open to constructive criticism, the less frustrated you will feel because the feedback you are given is to help you learn and understand, not just to point out that you aren’t doing something correctly. Again, once I realized I needed to be open to constructive criticism and that my instructors were actually trying to help, not negatively criticize (go figure!), my confidence with myself grew, especially in clinic.

When you do look back day after day, week after week, and even month after month, consciously think of how far you’ve come with certain skills. These are wins! Recognize those wins! Remember, right now you have instructors to support you when you feel stuck and overwhelmed. Give yourself time to figure out what you are struggling with, but if you can’t, your instructors are an awesome resource. Use them while you have them because, in the grand scheme of things, you only have them for a very short time. I don’t say this to scare you, but instead to encourage you to make the most of your time in hygiene school and learn that all-important skill of critical thinking.

Best of luck to you and keep your mind curious!


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Kara Vavrosky, RDHEP
Kara Vavrosky, RDHEP, is a co-founder and the chief content officer of Today’s RDH, an independent educational publishing company for dental hygienists, encompassing articles, a podcast, virtual continuing education events, and self-study continuing education. Today’s RDH was launched in 2018 after Kara built her social media presence with her largest following on her Facebook page, Dental Hygiene with Kara RDH, which was created in 2013. An Oregon Institute of Technology graduate, Kara has a deep passion for spreading knowledge about the importance of oral health and its association with systemic health. Kara’s passion extends to helping other hygienists understand current protocols and evidence-based research – all with the goal of lifting dental hygienists and the dental hygiene profession. Kara was recognized in 2020 as one of the Top 100 Women in Media for her entrepreneurship as a co-founder of Today’s RDH. In 2022, she was recognized by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association for their Standout Seven Award in the Entrepreneur category. Kara lives in Vancouver, Washington, just outside Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Ben, and their four Chihuahuas. When she’s not working, Kara loves riding the Oregon Dunes on her quad, spoiling her Chihuahuas, and spending time with her close-knit family.