In a climate of increasing regulation within early childhood education and care services, and the greater re-positioning of professionals within public sectors, this article seeks to extend the literature surrounding risk and regulation in early childhood. In efforts to ‘push back’ against the ‘regulatory gaze’ in the early childhood education and care sector, we investigate the role that learner engagement in initial teacher education can play in empowering early childhood pre-service teachers (PSTs) as professionals. This question is explored in the reporting of the findings from an action research study which redesigned a semester-long teacher education topic to draw on the students’ self-knowledge, applied experience and content choice, to go beyond the meeting of minimum credential requirements. Data were derived from sequential student evaluations and topic coordinators’ reflections. Subsequent analysis highlights significant insights in relation to student-teachers’ understanding of professionalism and their role within the ECEC sector. The implications of this re-positioning of PSTs’ developing sense of professionalism amidst increasing regulation are discussed.