Balancing Act: The Three Branches

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Lesson At A Glance

This lesson involves students understanding the three branches of the United States government and how these three branches check and balance each other.

See how this lesson fits into the context of a full unit, and prior knowledge students should have before doing this lesson.


  • Students will be able to describe the events that led to the creation of the Constitution.
  • Students will list and discuss key powers held by the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government.
  • Students will explain how the system of checks and balances in the Constitution prevents any one branch of the federal government from becoming too powerful.

Standards Addressed:

History Social Science

5.7.4 Understand how the Constitution is designed to secure our liberty by both empowering and limiting central government and compare the powers granted to citizens, Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court with those reserved to the states.

English/Language Arts

5.1 Connections, Relationships, Applications  Use theatrical skills to dramatize events and concepts from other curricular area, such as reenacting the signing of the Declaration of Independence

Common Core State Standards for ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects K-5

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing K-5

Text Types and Purposes

1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading K-5

Key Ideas and Details

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Big Ideas:

This lesson addresses the following big ideas we want learners to begin to understand from Stage One of the unit plan (below):

  • The strength of a democracy is equal to the strength of its citizens.
  • E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one

Essential Questions/Issues:

  • What does it mean to be an American citizen?
  • How does having written documents help the balance of the three branches of government?
  • Is citizenship a right or a responsibility?

Higher Order Thinking Questions:

  • How does having three branches of government help the country smoothly and fairly govern?  What evidence of that can be shown?  (evaluation/analysis)

Activity Steps:

Download activity steps


 Purpose   Teacher   Students

Teacher Instruction Strategies

Pass out object (ball, dice, cards, etc) to students who are arranged in groups of five.  Tell them to play a game (purposefully do not say a name of a game, rules of a game, etc.).  Allow students about 7-10 minutes of play.

Have students discuss what it was like to play a game without a name or established set of rules.  Write down what student share on poster paper.

Review with students how as a class you set up class rules using United States Constitution as model.  Refer to Class Constitution that was created the first week of school. (Note: posting of Classroom Constitution and the signatures of all students on the document with poster heading below.)

Classroom Constitution

Ask students what kinds of things might happen in a classroom without rules, without a leader or consequences.  Note any “links” or “tie-in” to the playing of the object game at beginning of lesson.

Remind students that all 13 colonies were doing their own thing with money, armies, and government. They needed some conformity.

*Three-legged stool story with one leg breaking shows “balance” and keeping one in place…all three legs must be same length and bear the same weight to make things work.

Teacher Talk: While milking a cow by hand, the farm lad or dairy maid would sit on a low, sturdy stool, usually constructed with three legs in a tripod arrangement.  Even if they were never used for this specific purpose, such three-legged stools are today collectively known as milking stools. The splayed leg arrangement provided stability on the often uneven stone or dry earth floors that were typical of early farm buildings.

Other options: Use a seesaw with three equal weight items or use a balance scale from science lab or kit

Using tri-fold graphic organizer students take notes and use icons during teacher talk (see sample graphic organizer in teacher resource section) provide paper/folding instructions to students…

Teacher Talk:  Label tri-fold with each branch of government as headings: legislative, judicial and executive.  List descriptors for each legislative-congress; judicial-supreme court; executive-president.  Under each branch label sections as: Main Responsibility; Members; Key Powers (see model).

Read Aloud:  Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution by Jean Fritz

If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution by Elizabeth Levy

A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution by Betsy Maestro/Giulio Maestro

Introduce vocabulary:

checks and balances, Constitution, three branches: legislative, judicial, executive; veto, election, appointment, compromise, rights, due process, Continental Congress, Preamble, Amendments, Declaration of Independence.

Teacher Talk:

“We have a system in our United States government that allows us to ensure rights, responsibilities, and freedom for law-abiding citizens.  To do this we have three branches of government. This created a more stable form of government following the Revolutionary War.”

Show the three-legged stool with legs in place

Show what happens when one leg does not do what it is supposed to do. Remove one leg, then two. Explain that like a one-legged stool, the central government was weak, ineffective, and very unstable under the Articles of Confederation. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention redesigned the government to create three strong branches (legs) to better meet the needs of a nation that was growing.

Information to include in tri-fold:

EXECUTIVE:  This branch allows the President to execute or carry out the laws established in the Legislative branch of government.

LEGISLATIVE:  Congress (US) makes the laws that govern. There are 2 representatives from each state in the Senate and 435 members in the House of Representatives.

JUDICIAL:  Supreme Court Justices (9) uphold the laws and ensure justice by carrying out the laws established by our national government.

Show School House Rock video: Three Ring Circus Or How to Make a Bill


Determine where students will store tri-fold.  Prepare class for group/station activities.

Activities/ Centers/Groups:

Station 1
Power, Power; Who Has the Power Matching 

Teacher explains directions for activity:

Explain that they will play a game that will test their knowledge of the powers held by each branch of government. Tell students to carefully look at each illustration and decide which constitutional power it represents. They should then place the illustration with the matching power card(s). Once the cards are checked, students may sort the cards into three piles by branch of government.

Station 2
Our Government Concentration

Teacher explains directions for activity:

Students have three choices as to how this game is played. They must decide if they want to lay all the cards face up and place them on the chart in the matching/corresponding box. Or they may turn all the cards for both sets face up and match the two cards that go together. Or they may turn all cards face down in two separate groupings and match the corresponding pairs by turning them over two at a time.

Station 3
Constitutional Preamble Group Write

(Write the preamble in the center of a sheet of chart paper)

Teacher explains directions for this activity:

Students will create 6 symbols to represent each of the six parts of the Preamble. In their own words, they will write a sentence that tells what each symbol means. Remind them this will be shared with the class and to plan their poster carefully and neatly. Place the student book We The Kids by David Catrow at the center to guide student brainstorming.

Station 4
Three Branch Hula Hoop Game

Teacher explains directions for activity:

There will be 3 hula hoops on the floor each representing a branch of our government.

Each Branch will have a label. Students are to place a label (a branch of government) in each hoop. Then they decide as a team which cards correctly identify the branch of government that handles what the card states. Extension could include students lining up cards with how each branch checks each other.

Station 5
Comparison Quick Write

Teacher explains directions for playing activity:

Tell students they should reflect and discuss how this lesson started. Remind them about the game without rules, the class without rules, and what we learned about states without rules. They should brainstorm together on the sheet all the ideas they can think of for five minutes. When the timer goes off they should begin writing their individual quick write responding to the prompt.  Give them about 10 minutes.

Lesson Closure

Culminating Activity/or GATE – Reader’s Theatre

Unite or Die How Thirteen States Became a Nation by Charlesbridge Locate at:


Give assessments:

Multiple Choice and Match Test

On Demand Prompts – either assessment choice.


Student Activities

Students dialogue what game they will play, and determine what rules they will need

Students will share out frustrations and lessons gleaned from group experience

Students will observe original class document

Students will comment/discuss, share out difficulties they might experience while the teacher writes comments on poster paper.





Students respond in class discussion to the inadequacies of weight bearing objects – if unequal.



Students will follow teacher directions for creating a tri-fold note taking graphic organizer. Make sure all tri-folds are labeled correctly in no particular order



Students may be making notes in tri-fold or listening quietly





Students will write vocabulary words and definitions on one of the organizer flaps.


Students take notes.

Students will periodically turn and share with classmate information they just wrote down.

Students take notes.  Students turn to each other and tell each other why our government is compared to a three-legged stool.




Students continue to take notes

Stop them to have them group and share 1 item they just wrote about each branch of government


Students continue to take notes during video.


Place students in groups (no more than 5 groups).


Students play the game. The cards will show nine situations. Each one requires action by one or two or three of the branches of the federal government. In the first 4 situations only one card may be played. In the remaining cards two or more may be played. If students want to they can put the cards in order of action taken by the three branches.

Students will decide if they want to lay all the cards face up and place them on the chart in the matching or corresponding box. They may also decide as a group to turn all the cards for both sets face up and match the two cards that go together. Or they may play the game by turning all cards face down in two separate groupings and match the corresponding pairs by turning them over two at a time.

Large paper needed with prewritten preamble on paper for each group (5 total).

Students will create 6 symbols to represent each of the six parts of the Preamble. In their own words, they will write a sentence that tells what each symbol means.

Students will place a label of each branch in a different hula hoop. Students are to decide as a team which cards correctly identify the branch of government that handles what the card states. They will place the cards in the correct hula hoop.


Need chart paper (1 per group=5 total) with the prompt:

Our class is made up of about ____ individuals. Suppose each of us followed only our own rules, our own ideas about learning, and our own way of doing things. Would our class be a pleasant place to be? Would the class be strong or weak?

Explain in a brief quick write how that experience is similar to the experience of our founding fathers, and what they chose to do about it.

See Teacher Resource section

See Teacher Resource section


Special Needs of students are considered in this lesson: 

The activities in this lesson such as Power, Power; Concentration; Rewriting the Preamble, Hula Hoop branches and a quick write all provide the opportunity for strategic groups of students and meeting all student learning styles.  For example, the hula hoop activity allows for kinesthetic learners and the grouping for the writing activities allows for partnering students with who may need assistance in this area.  The Readers’ Theater activity provides another avenue for extending student learning and providing students the opportunity to participate in a visual/performing arts activity.

Extension Ideas:

  • GATE and/or high achieving students may write their own classroom or family Bill of Rights.
  • Utilize resources provided by Time for Kids online and the weekly magazine (Sept. 18, 2009) issue covers the Supreme Court and the three branches of government.

Materials and Resources Needed:

  • Writing prompt and rubric for each student
  • Paper for tri-fold
  • Hula Hoops (three x 5 groups = 15) for demonstration
  • Three - leg stool
  • Chart paper
  • White board pens
  • Game materials (prepared in advance of lesson)



Use Ben’s Guide for US Government for kids Branches of Government 

  • SEPARATION OF POWERS.  The system of dividing the powers and duties of a government into different branches.  The framers of the Constitution needed to provide for a separation of powers,
  • THREE SEPARATE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT.  Each has its own responsibilities and at the same time they work together to make the country run smoothly and to assure that the rights of citizens are not ignored or disallowed.
  • This is done through CHECKS AND BALANCES (limits imposed on all branches of government by giving each the right to amend acts of the other branches.…a branch may use its powers to check the powers of the other two in order to maintain a balance of power among the three branches of government. 

Student Handouts:

Download student handouts here

Context of the unit:

This unit involves a study of the three branches of the United States government. 

Context of the lesson within the unit:

This lesson involves students understanding the three branches of the United States government and how these three branches check and balance each other.

Prior to this lesson: 

Students have been introduced to the historical founding documents of the United States of America, such as the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence.