Cannella, for example, has helped transform the Stony
Brook School of Dental Medicine’s curriculum to incorporate
more behavioral science.
The National Board Dental Examination includes questions
on behavioral science, Cannella points out. And accreditation
standards for dental schools also require dental students to
learn behavioral science as well as communication, ethics and
When the Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine recruited
Cannella in 2007, the only training students received in
behavioral science was a 14-hour class in their second year. That
wasn’t nearly enough, she says.
Cannella ended up revamping the curriculum to add
behavioral science. Spanning four years, the new comprehensive
curriculum integrates basic, clinical and behavioral science;
uses a team-based approach; and blends didactic training with
application in the clinic.
Now students get training in behavioral science and work
in the clinic in their first year — unlike students at many
dental schools, who only get into clinical settings in their
third or fourth years. The emphasis at this stage is on how to
adapt their communication style to a broad range of patients.
Communicating with pediatric and geriatric patients, for
example, involves issues about autonomy and independence,
“but at different ends of the spectrum, with children having
increasing levels of decision-making and autonomy and the
elderly possibly having decreased capacity and decision-making ability,” says Cannella. In subsequent years, the
students tackle more complex issues, such as managing dental
anxiety, recognizing interpersonal violence and encouraging
better oral hygiene, healthier nutrition and smoking
The new curriculum also emphasizes interprofessionalism.
When students are learning how to interview patients, for
example, Cannella works alongside clinical staff to ensure that
the students receive both clinical and behavioral science feedback
on their videotaped interviews with actors paid to perform the
role of patients. “Dentists tend to focus on the technical aspects
of dentistry, such as whether the student accurately diagnosed
the problem and made the correct recommendations,” she says.
“I tend to focus more on body language, word choice and tone
In January, the school launched a new center established
to bring the dental, nurse practitioner and social work fields
together to provide health promotion and disease prevention
services to older adults with multiple chronic illnesses while
advancing interprofessional education. Funded with a grant
from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the
program will teach students not just the clinical material but
how to work as a team.
Other dental school psychologists focus on ensuring that
students make it through what can be the grueling process of
“My first priority is to help first-year students survive,” says
psychologist Bruce Peltier, PhD, who also teaches behavioral
science and ethics at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry
at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco.
“Dental education has a long history of being harsh,
paternalistic and hierarchical,” says Peltier. Although the
University of the Pacific’s dental school made a conscious
decision about 35 years ago to be more student-friendly, he says,
the experience can still be tough on students.
Plus, says Peltier, the very nature of dentistry can be trying.
“Few of your patients really want to be there, and many of
them tell you when they walk in, ‘I hate dentists,’” he says. “The
The school initially hired Peltier in the late 1980s to help
train faculty in counseling and advising skills, then asked him
to see students struggling with stress and learning problems.
His one-day-a-week gig soon turned into a full-time position.
In addition to his work with first-year students and his teaching
duties, Peltier now offers psychological services to other
students, teaches listening skills and hypnosis and runs a weekly
“It has been a great fit,” says Peltier. “I think they could
really use five of me. Every dental school could use about five
psychologists, because there’s just so much we can do that’s of
great benefit to dental education.” n
• American Dental Education Association. The
association includes a behavioral science section dedicated
to developing, integrating and transmitting social,
behavioral and biomedical science related to oral health.
• Dental Fear Central. Available at www.
dentalfearcentral.org, this site offers information about
common fears and what can help, plus a forum, tips for
dentists and more.
• Mostofsky, D. I., & Fortune, F. (2014). Behavioral
dentistry, (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.