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Who Has the Power?


Each of the three branches of the United States government plays an important role in keeping the leaders of our country accountable and our system fair and just. Each branch has specific tasks that include keeping the other branches "in line", a system known as "checks and balances." Checks and balances allow each branch to review and limit the powers of the others. Many controversial actions attempted by each branch have been stalled or blocked through the system of checks and balances. This system encourages those in each branch of government to carefully consider how their actions will be perceived by members of the other branches.

In this lesson students will review the system of checks and balances and apply their knowledge to historical situations. They will identify the branches that were involved in each event and how the branches checked each other's power.


In this lesson, students:

  • Identify how the three branches of the federal government balance each other’s power within a system of checks and balances.
  • Apply their understanding of the checks and balances system to historic events.


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Who Has the Power diagram, displayed for the class or drawn on the board (students need to be able to write on it)
  • Situation Cards
  • Situation Cards Answer Key
  • Role Play Directions


  1. Display the Who Has the Power diagram for the class or draw it on the board. The diagram should be displayed for the duration of the lesson.
  2. Review with students the system of checks and balances and how each branch of government can limit the power of the other branches.
  3. Assign each student a partner. Give each pair of students a Situation Card. (Depending on the number of students, some pairs may receive the same card.)
  4. Allow students time to read their situation card with their partner.
  5. Ask students to determine which branch of government is showing or using their power over another branch. Call pairs of students up to the displayed Who Has the Power diagram one group at a time. Students should write the number of their scenario on the appropriate line on the Who Has the Power worksheet. (For example, if the situation is an example of the Judicial Branch having power over the Executive Branch, the line pointing from the Judicial box to the Executive box is where the students write their answer.) There may be more than one check and balance in each situation.
  6. Ask each pair to explain their scenario to the class and justify the placement of their scenario on the Who Has the Power diagram. Correct any misplaced scenarios.

Lesson Extensions

  1. Include additional or alternate scenarios.
  2. Conduct a role play using the following directions.
    • Explain to the class that they are going to become the three branches of government. Choose a President, nine judges, and the remainder will be Congress.
    • Follow the Role Play Directions to lead students in the role-play activity.
    • When the role-play is finished, have a class discussion on what took place in the three branches during the activity.

This lesson was written by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Master Teachers Chris Whitehead, Mesa, AZ, and Kim O'Neil, Liverpool, NY.