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Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

Subject: Social Studies, Civics, Current Events, Government
Grade: 9-12

Brief Description

In this introductory lesson, students will recognize the importance of understanding how the separate powers of the three branches of government work together, in a checks and balances system, to form a single unit of government.


Students will be able to define the terms "separation of powers" and "checks and balances;" list the three separate branches of government; identify each branches' assigned powers and functions; label each branches' exerted powers over the others.


U.S. government, checks and balances, separation of powers

Materials Needed

overhead projector and transparencies, chalkboard and chalk or dry erase board and markers, American Government textbook, illustrating governmental pictures and an overhead transparency displaying a diagram depicting the separation of powers and checks and balances of the United States government, assessment quizzes, paper, pencils or pens

Lesson Plan


  • Show overhead transparencies depicting familiar illustrations of each branch of the national government.
  • Ask: What can you tell me about government in relation to separation of powers and checks and balances by looking at these photographs?
  • Explain to students that government has been defined as "the organized use of force to ensure social order." Point out that they are a force upon the government and, as such, need to take a stand in promoting order for their lives.
  • Arrange students' desks in a semi-circle and ask students to brainstorm anything they know about government separation of powers and checks and balances.
  • Utilizing a chalkboard or dry erase board and overhead transparencies as visual aids, help students "see," both visually and verbally, how our system of government works.
  • Conclude with a review of the material presented so far.


Present the following information in a lecture format.

  • Federalism is a political system in which at least two separate governments share the responsibility for governing the same people and the same territory. In effect, federalism draws lines to separate the powers of different levels of government. Ask: What is separation of powers? (Separation of powers is the assigning of the legislative (law-making), executive (law-enforcing), and judicial (law-interpreting) powers to three different branches of the government.)
  • The principle of separation of powers draws lines that divide the powers held by distinct branches at a single level of government. Ask: What are the three branches of the national government called? (The three separate branches of the national government are the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.) Each branch has its own powers, though some powers are shared among them. The system of separation of powers is designed to reduce the risk that a single branch might act independently and abuse its power.
  • Separate functions and powers are assigned to each of the three branches of the national government. Congress, the legislative branch, makes laws. The president, head of the executive branch, carries out those laws. The judicial branch (the courts) monitors the executive process that administers the laws. Ask: What specific functions/powers do the legislative, executive, and judicial branches have? (The legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch enforces laws, and the judicial branch interprets laws.) No branch can carry out its functions/powers without some cooperation from the other branches. This cooperation prevents excesses in policy that might result if a single branch were in complete control.
  • Richard Neustadt, a political scientist, observed that the Constitution does not separate power so much as create "a government of separated institutions sharing power." Ask: What is a system of checks and balances? (A system of checks and balances is a government structure that gives each branch some control of the actions of the others and requires cooperation among the branches.)
  • A system of balances minimizes the risk that one branch might completely take over the government or stray too far politically from the other branches. The system of checks and balances design has been a key factor in the Constitution's survival, assuring evolution in government rather than revolution. Due to a system of checks and balances, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches' powers overlap, and each branch exerts some power over the others.
  • The Legislative Branch (House and Senate) checks on the president; can override a presidential veto; can impeach and remove the president; ratifies presidential appointments; authorizes/appropriates funds for legislation; checks on the judiciary; can impeach and remove judges; confirms federal judges.
  • The Executive Branch (President) checks on Congress; proposes legislation; vetoes legislation; makes treaties; checks on the judiciary; appoints federal judges; enforces court decisions.
  • The Judicial Branch (Supreme Court and lower courts) checks on the president; reviews executive acts; checks on Congress; reviews congressional laws.
  • Sharing of power can cause tension and lead to conflict. The wording of the U.S. Constitution is ambiguous in some ways because many situations are not dealt with specifically. Each branch of government has at one time or another has attempted to expand its power by reinterpreting these ambiguities, leading to conflict over power and control of policy. Overall, separation of powers and the system of checks and balances has been both a source of tension and a basis for stability.


  • Review the definitions of the major terms contained in this lesson, including separation of powers and system of checks and balances.
  • List the three branches of the national government on the board and review the functions/powers assigned to each branch.
  • Review how the three branches' powers overlap, along with how each separate branch is able to check and balance the other two branches.


Evaluate students using several short quizzes that determine whether they can correctly define separation of powers and checks and balances; correctly list the three branches of the national government and identify their assigned functions and powers; correctly draw and label the checks and balances each branch has over the other branches.

Lesson Plan Source

Bibliography: Johnson, Miller, Aldrich, Rohde, Ostrom, Charles William. American Government: People, Institutions, and Policies. Princeton, New Jersey: Houghton Mifflin, Inc., 1994.

Glenn Day, ([email protected]) Mooresville High School, Mooresville, Indiana



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