Grades 4-6

Teaching How Citizens Influence Public Policy


During your session, students will:

  • define a policy
  • identify an issue that requires a policy
  • develop a policy that addresses an issue
  • explain why and how policies change
  • understand how citizens influence policies

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students use a school policy to define policy, understand that policies change, and recognize what and who influences policy making and changes.

Making Public Policy

Time needed:  1 class period
Materials needed:  chalkboard, chalk
Influencing Public Policy Handout (below)


1. Introduce yourself to the students. Then explain that for several years, the students at Heatherwood School have been trying to change a school policy. Point out that a policy is a plan or way of doing things. This particular policy states, "Hats may not be worn in the school building during school hours." Present the viewpoints of students and teachers at the school, and write them in note form on the board:

Students' Viewpoint

Students feel that the purpose of wearing hats or caps has changed. People no longer wear hats just as protection from the sun or for warmth. Hats have become fashion statements and are therefore part of the way students dress. They feel that not being able to wear hats is a dress code. They believe that hats are not in the same category as clothes that are too revealing or clothes with unacceptable words on them.

Teachers' Viewpoint

Teachers feel that students' hats might be disruptive and take away from their learning. They argue that in the past, wearing hats inside a building has been considered impolite and therefore should not be allowed.

2. First, ask students to identify the issue, restate the present policy, and identify the changes in the policy that the Heatherwood students want. Then write on the chalkboard the following values/factors that might influence the decision about the policy:

  • Freedom
  • Security
  • Tradition
  • Stability
  • Growth
  • Efficiency
  • Learning environment
  • Fairness

Divide the class into two groups and a panel. One group will take the viewpoint of the Heatherwood students. One group will take the viewpoint of the teachers. The panel will decide the policy. Have the groups copy the relevant viewpoint information and the values/factors from the board. Tell them that they can add ideas of their own, but they must take the viewpoint of the students or teachers as assigned and as stated on the board. Write the following questions on the board. Have the panel copy the goals and the questions, which panel members are to answer after they listen to the teacher and student groups present their different points of view.

  • Should the policy stay as it is?
  • Should the policy change? If the policy changes, what is the new policy?
  • Why did you decide the way you did? How does your decision show that you considered the goals?

3. After students have either decided to keep the old policy or written a new policy, discuss the policy-making process and ask how they feel about the outcome.

4. Use the hat policy-making simulation to discuss policy making in the United States. Explain that just as teachers and students at Heatherwood School participated in making policy, citizens of the United States can and should participate in identifying public issues and making public policies. Define a public issue as a problem or concern that people have that needs to be resolved by a policy. Define a public policy as a plan or course of action made and followed by the government (local, state, or federal) and the citizens.

5. To show students how government and citizens are involved in the different levels of policy making, display the "Influencing Public Policy" poster. Emphasize that at each level, public policy making begins with the government listening to the people's needs, concerns, wishes, and opinions.

6. Ask students whether it is possible for a policy to become outdated.

Tell students that Heatherwood students were able to change the school's hat-wearing policy. The new policy states that students may wear hats in the school building unless the hats are disrupting the learning process. Ask students what would happen if Heatherwood students began wearing hats that showed gang membership, and fights began to break out. Discuss how and why a change in the situation at the school might affect the policy on hats. Point out that if hats with certain colors and symbols became associated with particular gangs and fights began to break out because hats with gang allegiances were being worn, safety issues might bring about another change in the hat-wearing policy.

Adapted from the ABA handbook Influencing Public Policy.