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Adolescence, the developing brain and the school experience



Carlingford’s new Gateway Community High School for teenagers in Years 9 and 10 is informed by research about what is going on in the minds of young people at this stage of life.


According to Parenting author, public speaker and education advisor Nathan Wallis, critical parts of the adolescent brain are still under construction at a time when they are needed most. He goes so far as to compare the brain of a 15-year-old with that of a five-year-old child.


“It’s when all of the activity is happening in the emotional brain. When you’re 15, the frontal cortex is still under construction,” Wallis explains.


Limited in their ability to regulate emotions, solve problems and interact in consistent and socially mature ways, adolescents are especially susceptible to anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

How do anxiety and depression affect an adolescent’s school experience and academic performance?


It helps to visualise the emotional life of an adolescent as having both internal and external forces that can collide in catastrophic ways. Internally, there is dramatic hormonal and neurological change. At the same time, externally, there are transformational shifts in relationships with parents and peers, as well as possible romantic partners. Negative body perception, bullying, abuse, and/or a dysfunctional family life, can bring an adolescent to breaking point, even when strong support structures exist in their lives.


The impact of trauma and adversity on a teenager’s school experience is instant and recognisable. It may include a lack of enthusiasm for activities once enjoyed and ‘school refusal.’ If poor behavioural choices are involved, the student may be seen as a troublemaker. Failing results in tests and assignments follow and a downward cycle is set in motion.


A series of stressful events in Jack’s life led to debilitating levels of anxiety at the thought of going to school and, ultimately, school refusal. Long term trauma presented challenges in Alexis’s life, derailing her ability to focus on schoolwork and make friends, leading to bullying, and resulting in her being pigeonholed by teachers as unacademic and unmotivated.

Is your adolescent a school refuser?


School refusal is a common sign of trauma and adversity and may require expert intervention or even an alternative school like Gateway Community High. Psychology Today includes the following types of behaviours in their definition of school refusal:

  • Stomach-ache prior to going to school, or repeated visits to the school sickbay when at school. The child is not faking this. It is an anxiety response and, when allowed to stay home, symptoms disappear.

  • Separation anxiety—a fear of separation from parents, grandparents, or other attachment figures.

  • Changes in mood, behaviour, and performance. In adolescents, this more often presents as anxiety, anger, difficulty maintaining grades at school, social isolation at school or other behaviours that are out of character.

  • Negative experiences at school, which may include bullying, a bad teacher, or a generalised fear. (Finding out what’s happening at school is critical to understanding school refusal.)

NEW: Gateway Community High in Sydney’s North-West


Mainstream schools do not always have the time or resources to meet the complex needs of adolescents exhibiting school refusal or other symptoms of anxiety and depression. Making matters worse, COVID-19 has placed additional economic and social strain on vulnerable families, resulting in thousands of students not returning to school following lockdown, which means that ‘schooling-done-differently’ is more crucial than ever.


Gateway Community High offers an alternative to the mainstream. A safe haven, a healing and supportive space, Gateway students complete the Year 10 Record of School Achievement (RoSA) without losing momentum or ‘falling through the cracks.’ An initiative of highly successful support-based education institution Macquarie Community College, Gateway gives adolescents the opportunity to learn in a positive, personalised and inclusive atmosphere.


Gateway Community High CEO Theresa Collignon describes some aspects of their intentional approach: “The school has smaller class sizes and each student has an individual learning plan. There is no homework and the focus is on experiential-style learning, and specialist language, literacy or numeracy support. Just as importantly, we build in additional time for students to pursue their own interests and projects.


“We’re confident this program gives students the boost they need to re-enter more conventional learning programs.”


Gateway Community High is not a special needs or behavioural school—it’s an alternative high school with tailored support and special assistance dedicated to students who are unique in their own way, and who:

  • Will thrive outside a mainstream educational environment

  • Are looking for a place of belonging and safety

  • Are interested in learning and willing to put in the effort to succeed

  • Would benefit from extra support and attention to re-engage in their education

  • May have missed some language, literacy or numeracy fundamentals

  • Are looking to build their pathway to future Vocational Education Training (VET) or Year 11 and 12 studies.

If your child is refusing school, Gateway Community High recommends discussing this with the school counsellor or principal of your adolescent’s current school. If you are considering a special assistance school like Gateway, discover more information on our website, email us or call (02) 8845 8835 to arrange an interview or tour.


We are currently taking bookings for our Open Days in November. Our Covid-safe plan for Open Days means limited places are available and registration is essential. Register now.

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263 Marsden Rd, Carlingford NSW 2118

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