Dental assistants typically receive their formal education through vocational schools, community colleges, dental specialty schools and even the military. An average dental training program lasts between nine and 12 months, but some accelerated programs can grant certificates in a shorter time. Part-time programs and two-year associate’s degrees take longer. (See a list of recommended training programs)
The Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association (ADA) is responsible for accrediting dental assisting programs and has approved over 250 of them. It’s important to enroll in a program that has proper accreditation so that you’re ensured of a quality education that will be recognized by potential employers.
Dental Assistant Program Curriculum
Typical dental assistant programs include classroom, laboratory and clinical components that provide students with both theoretical knowledge and practical skills. Some of the common courses covered in a dental assisting program can include:
- Dental Anatomy
- Dental Pathology
- Dental Science
- Equipment Use
- Chair-side Procedures
- Dental Radiology
- Pediatric Dentistry
- Four-Handed Dentistry
(See detailed descriptions of these and other dental assisting courses)
High school students interested in dental assisting should take science-related classes such as biology, chemistry and health, as well as courses in computer technology and office skills. Finishing high school is a key first step in becoming a dental assistant, since a high school diploma is mandatory for the next stage in education.
Additionally, students gain invaluable experience working in dentist offices and dental schools to hone their skills.
After graduation, dental assistants typically still require some level of on-the-job training. While working, they quickly become acquainted with the proper terminology, equipment, office procedures and other tasks needed to perform the job. They also focus on the aspects of the job that change from office to office, such as filing systems, the location of equipment and the dentist’s personal preferences for dental procedures. (see: Dental Assistant Job Description)
Dental Assistant Licensing
Not to be confused with dental assistant certification, licensing is mandatory for dental assistants in most states.
A license or registration not only serves as proof that a dental assistant is qualified to perform his or her duties, but it also serves to regulate the functions that he or she is allowed to perform. If someone has completed formal schooling in an ADA-accredited dental assisting program, that will likely be enough to qualify for licensing.
Some states require much less than a year-long program, however; some require just a few courses, and others require little or no formal education. Others still require dental assistants to continually re-certify their knowledge in order to maintain a license. Check your state’s requirements in order to determine what’s needed to earn and keep a dental assistant’s license.