Lesson plan

What are Checks and Balances?

Life is about balance, and that applies to government too! Use this civics lesson with your students to teach them about the system of checks and balances, and why these are an important part of American government.
GradeSubjectView aligned standards

Students will be able to explain the system of checks and balances.

(2 minutes)
  • Invite students to take out a whiteboard and whiteboard marker.
  • Display an image of a scale.
  • Give students 30 seconds to jot down all their ideas, knowledge, and observations about the scale.
  • Collect a few answers and explain that a scale shows whether two things are balanced in weight.
  • Share with students that this scale is used as a visual to demonstrate that the branches of the government must be balanced, too.
(15 minutes)
  • Tell students that today’s civics lesson will focus on how government works. Include that it is our civic duty as citizens to understand how our government works, so that we can interact and vote appropriately.
  • Review the three branches of government. Explain that one can not be more powerful than the other, and they all check each other so that our government runs fairly.
  • Share that CivicsIs the study of the rights and duties of citizens and how the government works. One of the key components of our government working smoothly is the system of Checks and balances. This is a system that is used to keep the government from getting too powerful in one branch. The branches check each other to make sure everyone is following the rules and doing the right thing.
  • Give each student a blank piece of paper and instruct them to fold it to create four equal boxes in which to take notes.
  • Show the Checks and Balances video that explains the system.
  • Have students record the following notes in each section of the paper:
    • Each branch of the government (executive, legislative, judicial) has some power over the other branches.
    • No branch can become too powerful.
    • No branch can work without approval or cooperation of other branches.
    • Example: The president can veto, or say no, to a bill. The legislative branch can override a president’s veto and still pass the bill.
  • Explain that the goal of the checks and balances is for the branches to give Approval, which is permission and acceptance of a plan or idea, to each other in order to get things done in the government. With Cooperation, which is when people work together to do something, the government works well and gets things done.
(10 minutes)
  • Put students into small groups and give each group a sheet of construction paper.
  • Instruct groups to use the information gleaned from the video to create a visual to represent the system of checks and balances.
  • Tell students to label the diagram with only a few words, focusing on the most important words and key terms.
  • Circulate and check in with groups to see their progress and how they are working with the key information regarding the system of checks and balances.
(10 minutes)
  • Write a letter to a second grader that teaches about civics, specifically the system of checks and balances.
  • Remind the class that the second graders have not yet learned all about how our government works, so they need information simplified and key words defined.
  • Review the components of a friendly letter (greeting, body, closing/signature).
  • Encourage students to draw a picture to illustrate the system of checks and balances after they have finished writing the letter.


  • Provide reluctant writers with a graphic organizer to use in order to plan sentences for the friendly letter.
  • Offer visual images to accompany the key terms from the lesson.
  • Give students a word bank of key civics terms to use in their friendly letters.
  • Display sentence stems for students to use during independent practise such as, "The system of checks and balances is _____." and "The branches check each other because _____."


  • Encourage advanced students to delve deeper into the topic of checks and balances. Provide them with access to the internet or other research materials in order to find specific ways in which the branches check each other. Give students the freedom to choose how they want to present the information (digital presentation, oral presentation, or visual presentation).
(5 minutes)
  • Assign students a partner to share the letters they wrote during independent practise.
  • Circulate and listen to the letters, noting which students have mastery of the content and which students seem to have gaps in their understanding.
  • Utilize the Exit Ticket as a formative assessment.
(3 minutes)
  • Give each student an index card on which to answer an Exit Ticket question.
  • Display the following questions and instruct students to choose one for their response. They should put the number of the corresponding question before writing their answer with complete sentences.
    • Why is the system of checks and balances important?
    • How does the system of checks and balances help our country
    • How does the system of checks and balances work?
  • Collect the Exit Ticket.

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