The issue of who should be included and recognised as professionals in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) service system is both contested and pressing in the current policy climate. At stake is a high-quality early childhood care and education service system that is both responsive and appropriate to the constituency it serves. A review of the history of ECEC professionalism reveals complex entanglements and debates regarding professional belonging. Services that deliver education and care to children and families living in high poverty contexts are often excluded from ECEC professionalism debates. Drawing on notions of rationality, emotionality and criticality presented in recent accounts of ECEC professionalism, we use data collected from interviews with service providers delivering services to children and families living in high poverty contexts in Australia to develop an account of criticality that is pertinent to current funding and policy contexts. We argue that these service providers’ perspectives about their own professionalism have much to offer broader debates.