Game-Changer: Social and Emotional Learning can be done in the School Library Makerspace

[originally published in Transform and Thrive on]

co-authored by Katy Tessman and Jessica Gottlieb

School libraries are for everyone; they need to be a place that is ever changing in response to their students’ and teachers’ needs. Each school community is unique, however, a makerspace in a school library has the power to become a game-changing tool and resource, especially when it taps into district initiatives. One of the most enduring district initiatives that seems to be important across the country is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), and when you take those skills and put them in a Makerspace you not only have a great reason to advocate for the significance of libraries but more importantly you provide students with skills to become empathetic and good people prepared for an ever-changing world.

“Making is fundamental to what it means to be human. We must make, create, and express ourselves to feel whole. There is something unique about making physical things. Things we make are like little pieces of us and seem to embody portions of our soul.” – Mark Hatch, author of Maker Movement Manifesto

According to the Department of Labor, more than 65 percent of today’s students will grow up to take on jobs that do not exist yet. Educators have been tasked with teaching these students the skills they might need to be competitive in this uncertain future. The World Economic Forum shows on its Future of Jobs Report 2018 that creativity, originality, and initiative are in the top three for growing skills in the workplace. Among the top 10, problem-solving, critical thinking, reasoning, ideation, and evaluation, all subcategories of creativity, are considered growing skills. (Declining skills include precision, manual dexterity, memory, technology installation, reading, writing, and math skills.)1

With a changing global job market that will likely reward empathy, creativity and skills that have previously been labeled “soft” paired with problem-solving and critical thinking, educators must keep in mind what learning experiences are being offered to serve the whole student. Research has shown us that children and teens are experiencing an increase in anxiety and stress, which puts schools in the position of finding ways to support students socially and emotionally while preparing them for an uncertain future.2

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is one of the premier organizations for SEL; it has identified five core competencies that make up SEL. As you will see below they have the ability to marry perfectly into your library makerspace and provide you with new ways to support your students both academically and emotionally.

Self-Awareness – CASEL describes this core competency as the ability to assess one’s strengths and limitations with a sense of confidence and optimism. Isn’t that what we try to instill in students through the Makerspace–a “growth mindset” that allows them to take on challenges and have the endurance to overcome failures and fail forward? Some schools have done what we can only fondly call the “Kobayashi Maru” Maker Project or a logic project that has no possible solution to help their students understand these skill sets and learn perseverance in a relatively harmless and fun way.

These teams of students work together to decipher the BreakoutEDU
Armstrong High School, Robbinsdale Area Schools, MN

Self-Management – This SEL core competency is essentially self-managing our emotions, our stresses, and impulses while working towards a goal. A great way that school libraries are implementing this, especially given limited resources, is through center-based and challenged-based learning. Provide your students multiple options to explore their passions, but provide a self-guided element, giving them a project or challenge to accomplish. And remember you don’t have to answer their questions; let them struggle and overcome! Students experienced the therapeutic benefits of mandala stone painting.
Hopkins North Junior High, Hopkins Schools, MN
Relationship Skills – This SEL core competency is self-explanatory; it is grounded in the idea of teamwork (one of those job skills we know will be important in the future) and the ability to work with all kinds of people. Students naturally, when told to pick groups, will usually go with their friends. There will always be students who are more introverted and take a step back while some students naturally (and enthusiastically) dominate the conversation. The Makerspace becomes a great place for students to hone these relationship skills. Assign students groups based on wacky and random ideas so they work with new classmates but also don’t be afraid to assign them positions. One student can act as the tester, another the recorder, another the designer, and allow them to explore different jobs so they each have a chance at trying different positions but also allowing everyone a chance to participate and lead.

An unlikely trio learn Squishy Circuits together
Armstrong High School, Robbinsdale Area Schools, MN

Responsible Decision-Making – In life and in school we want students to make physically and emotionally healthy decisions and think about the consequences of actions and just make good choices. One of the easy ways to bring this SEL competency into your library makerspace is through valuation. Set up a design challenge, maybe it’s building a bridge with toothpicks and marshmallows, but assign a monetary value to each resource and provide them a budget they have to stick to. This forces them to be thoughtful about the resources they are using and to make responsible choices while also protecting your Makerspace consumables.

This makerspace learner is using a variety of tape and recycled cardboard boxes and weeded books to create something new
Armstrong High School, Robbinsdale Area Schools, MN

Social Awareness – This SEL core competency is about the ability to empathize and realize the situations and lives of others and how they differ from our own. There are so many ways to do this in your Makerspace and this is probably the most rewarding. Whether it’s having students do a MakerCares project like sewing blankets for the homeless or solving problems that face the globe through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals like using building materials to create a home that is flood-resistant, this allows students to engage with their home communities and their global communities in a unique and meaningful way.

The Falcon Tech Pros and Calvary Center Cooperative residents used technology to build intergenerational relationships
Armstrong High School, Robbinsdale Area Schools, MN

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” 3

There are many benefits of integrating social and emotional learning with makerspace learning. Hands-on, project based learning helps students strengthen important SEL skills.4

As Makerspaces teach students important science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) skills, students are also learning important social and emotional skills. Learning in a makerspace is a safe place for children and teens to develop skills about goal-setting, self-confidence, and motivation. Making is about failure as much as it is about making. Many SEL skills are developed when students embrace the “failing” as part of the making process. Learning from failures is an important skill for all people to learn.

“When we allow children to experiment, take risks, and play with their own ideas, we give them permission to trust themselves. When we honor different kinds of learning styles it becomes acceptable to solve problems without fear. When we acknowledge that there may be many right answers to a question, it gives children permission to feel safe while thinking and problem solving, not just when they answer correctly.” – Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez, authors of Invent to Learn

The library, the center of learning in the schools, is often front in line when budget cuts happen and advocacy is more important than ever. Tying into district level initiatives allows the library to showcase how it is not only the academic hub of the school but it’s also intrinsically a safe place where students can read books to help them deal with their lives, a place to take a break from chronic test fatigue, or learn to fail in the makerspace. Through tying into SEL initiatives we often see the district championing, it provides a reason to request funding in addition to taking advantage of the many grants available.

The media center is a constantly evolving responsive space to the needs of the students and staff. In addition to planning with teachers, it’s important to go with the flow and create the best experience for all of the users of the media center. The media center can also offer a place of calm too. Makerspaces provide a break for students from their regular class load. It gives them an opportunity to explore and develop new skills. Makerspace learning can also help students shift from being passive learners to active creators. Students return to class refreshed and ready to learn.


1“The Future of Jobs Report 2018.” World Economic Forum, 17 Sept. 2018,

2McCarthy, Claire. “Anxiety in Teens Is Rising: What’s Going On?”, 20 Nov. 2019,

3“What Is SEL?” Casel, 2019,

4Hinton, Kristin. “The Many Ways SEL Can Enhance Makerspace Learning.” Aperture Education, 28 Jan. 2019,

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